Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info
Mexico: The Challenges Ahead

Can a new President boost his nation's economy and stem the tide of illegal immigration to the United States?

By James C. McKinley Jr. in Mexico City

Almost a year into his six-year term, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón is grappling with a tough set of issues, none more pressing than illegal immigration to the United States and the broader question of how Mexico deals with its northern neighbor.

"For Mexico, the relationship with the U.S. is its most important foreign-policy relationship," says David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego.

Every year, more than 400,000 Mexicans illegally cross into the U.S., most in search of work and a better life for themselves or their families back home. With more than 6 million Mexicans now in the U.S. illegally, how they are treated, and their ability to earn money and send it to their families, is of great concern to Mexicans and their leaders.

Mexican immigrants in the U.S. send $20 billion back to Mexico every year. In addition, their absence takes some of the pressure off Mexico's economy, which has not been growing fast enough to provide enough good-paying jobs for Mexico's people. Together, this gives the Mexican government little incentive to make it harder for its citizens to sneak across the border.

The Impact of 9/11

As Washington takes steps to tighten up the border and crack down on illegal immigrants already in the U.S., President Calderón has stepped up his criticism of American policy. In a speech last month, he protested the "persecution and the vexing treatment" of Mexican workers in the U.S.

Mexicans had high hopes when President Bush was elected seven years ago. Bush had been the Governor of Texas, a border state with close economic and cultural ties to Mexico. And Bush had long favored a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans to enter the U.S. legally to work.

But the post-9/11 emphasis on security in the U.S., along with concerns about the impact of immigrants on the American economy, scrambled the picture. This summer, Congress failed to pass an immigration bill that would have put many illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship. In recent months, Washington has authorized the construction of 700 miles of fence along the border (bringing the total to about 800 miles of the 2,000-mile border); increased border patrols; and ordered tougher steps against employers who hire illegal workers. And as the 2008 U.S. presidential election heats up, immigration has become a key issue.

Calderón is also wrestling with other problems. He has launched an aggressive anti-crime campaign, sending thousands of troops and police into cities to take back control from drug traffickers and gangs. And last month, the Mexican Congress passed a tax-reform bill that Calderón hopes will stimulate economic growth and create jobs so that fewer Mexicans will feel the need to emigrate.

José Antonio Perez, a 27-year-old with a degree in mechanical engineering, is an example of someone Calderón wants to keep in Mexico. Unable to find an engineering job, Perez is teaching high school math and supplementing his income with bricklaying and carpentry jobs. "I sleep four hours a night," he told the Associated Press. "I can't even think of having a family until I get something more secure."

North-South Split

Last year's close presidential election revealed an economic and political divide that splits Mexico in two. Northern Mexico has benefited tremendously from NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the 1994 pact signed by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that made trade and investment among the three countries much easier. Many foreign companies have opened factories and other operations in Northern Mexico, where costs are much lower than in the U.S., creating thousands of jobs for Mexicans in the process.

But the economic benefits of NAFTA haven't been as significant in southern Mexico, which is mostly agricultural and has a large, and largely poor, native Indian population. Forty percent of the people in the south lack running water, and almost a quarter have no electricity.

These economic issues help explain Calderón's insistence that the illegal immigration problem should be addressed by attracting more investment and giving Mexicans a reason to stay at home—rather than by building more border fences.

However the issue plays out, it's clear that Mexico and the U.S. would both benefit from a solution. "On a daily basis, Mexico is the country that most impacts our [the U.S.'s] daily life, whether it's through immigration or trade," according to Professor Shirk in San Diego.

"We are fundamentally tied as nations. We have reached a point of interdependence," he says. "Our two economies and our two societies are incredibly entwined in ways that are difficult to ignore."