As the Senate debates immigration reform, many of the U.S.-Mexico border issues focus on two things — how to stop large numbers of undocumented immigrants from crossing, and how to achieve maximum security at the border. At Thursday’s hearing, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham — a strong proponent of immigration reform — said, “people coming across the southern border live in hellholes,” as he was trying to make the case on why more undocumented immigration comes from Mexico instead of Canada. Senator Graham said he was not slandering Mexico — he was just explaining why people want to come work in the U.S.
And on border security, Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley insisted on an amendment ensuring that the entire U.S.-Mexico border — not just the high-risk areas as originally proposed — be fully secured. Grassley said the original bill “unfortunately looks too much like 1986, which failed to take care of problems I want solved,” referring to the fact that the U.S. saw a high number of undocumented immigrants in the decades after the 1986 immigration law.
But 2013 is a different story, according to reports from groups such as the New Democratic Network and the Immigration Policy Center. “Look, part of the argument you hear is that we can never allow what happened before to happen again,” says NDN’s Simon Rosenberg. “But what is also part of the argument is that it will never happen again because it can’t happen again,” he adds.
The reason is Mexico, says Rosenberg. The American public is not getting the full picture of the current state of Mexico’s economy and its increasing importance as a trading partner. Mexico is the world’s 12th largest economy and America’s second-largest export market. Trade with Mexico has gone from $300 billion in 2009 to $536 billion in 2012, according to NDN’s new report, “Realizing the Strategic National Value of our Trade, Tourism and Ports of Entry with Mexico.“
Texas Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela said Mexico-Texas trade alone is $285 million, and has created over 3,000 jobs in Texas. The Immigration Policy Center’s “Lost in the Shadow of the Fence” states there was a 9.1 percent increase in goods exported to Mexico from the U.S. in just one year, from 2011 to 2012.
As to senators’ worries about large numbers of undocumented immigrants coming through the border, things are very different than they were during previous years, argues Rosenberg. “With Mexico’s declining birthrate and a growing middle class, the ability of Mexico to export labor will never be like what it was right before NAFTA,” he says.
On border security, the Immigration Policy Center states that while there is a need to secure the borders, “there is also a need for further streamlining and efficiently facilitating the daily cr0ss-border flows of people, goods, and services important to our bi-national economy.
“The recent immigration reform bill did put in for over 3,000 additional customs agents, which Rosenberg says recognizes “a healthier and holistic” view of the border and the U.S.-Mexico relationship. And in a recent trip President Obama highlighted Mexico’s increasing economic interdependence with the U.S.
Still, say groups like NDN and the Immigration Policy Center, the reality of the border in 2013 is not always reflected in the current immigration debates.
“We can only make good policy if we have the facts,” says Rosenberg.