Skip to content Skip to footer

With Obama Visit, Mexicans Scrutinize US Immigration Bill

Mexico’s reception of President Barack Obama last weekend and of his immigration reform bill is decidedly mixed. The bill’s emphasis on border security and its downgrading of family reunification provisions are unpopular.

President Barack Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico share a toast prior to a working dinner at Los Pinos, Mexico City, Mexico, May 2, 2013. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

For six years, Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera worked alongside his three brothers as an undocumented migrant in the United States. When he was deported back to Mexico in 2001, Trujillo Herrera went to work in his home state of Michoacán, with the dream of building a small business where his brothers could eventually return home and join him.

Over time, he managed to get a business started buying and selling gold and precious metals and convinced his youngest brother, Raúl, to return to Mexico. Less than four months after his return, Raúl was kidnapped, together with another brother, Salvador, and five others from their work crew while driving through Guerrero state, never to be seen or heard from again. In September of 2010, two more of Trujillo Herrera’s brothers were kidnapped while on their way to work in Veracruz, along with two others.

“All that’s come to us by moving back to Mexico is to lose our family,” said Trujillo Herrera. For the Trujillo Herrera family, the desire to be reunified and together in their home country resulted in the tragic disappearances of four brothers.

According to Marco Antonio Castillo, who works with the Popular Association of Migrant Families in Mexico City, the spike in murders and disappearances that accompanied the United States-backed war on drugs has had a devastating impact on migrants and their families. “It’s very ironic that Mexican and US governments speak about a war on drugs when the numbers and the consequences of it have shown that this war is against people and migrants,” Castillo told Truthout during an interview in Mexico City.

Castillo and others who support the rights of migrants and their families in Mexico, organized events and a protest timed with Barack Obama’s arrival last weekend in the country.

During his first visit to Mexico as president more than four years ago, he said he was committed to comprehensive immigration reform. But this time, Obama can finally show some progress, in the form of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” a bill introduced in the Senate April 17.

The 844-page bill touches on everything from banning repeat drunk drivers from the United States to more money for drones on the border and the promotion of Canadian tourism. It also includes provisions that could impact many of the more than 30 million noncitizens living in the United States today, including the introduction of a “blue card” which would allow some farmworkers to apply for temporary residency, which could lead to green cards and eventually citizenship. However, those who qualify for the “Pathway to Citizenship” will not have access to most health care or welfare benefits for at least 10 years. The bill also creates W visas, which in theory will allow agricultural workers to change employers.

For some, there is guarded optimism about some of the provisions of the bill.

The bill provides new protections for workers during the recruitment process. “Before, there was no protection during the recruitment process; now the law proposes various points . . . that could positively affect people” who are planning to travel to the United States on agricultural workers’ visas, said Lilian López, an outreach coordinator with Mexico City’s Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM). She says if the new bill is made law, workers will be better informed about where they will work, who their employer will be and what the timelines are for their trip. In addition, according to López, the bill stipulates that employers must pay all expenses for their workers to arrive to work, including visa fees and transportation. “There are court cases that obligated employers to pay, but only through court cases. It was never explicit in the law. Now, these protections will be contained within the law,” she said.

Others are less optimistic about the possibility that the proposed immigration reform will live up to their hopes and expectations.

“When it was announced, we thought that finally the US government was going to recognize fully the contribution of recent migrants from the past 20 to 30 years, but then, as it became a negotiation between ultraconservative groups with less conservative groups, it became clear that it became more of a discussion centered on national security, more than on human values,” said Castillo. “Today, we’re pretty disappointed in what’s been offered to us.”

Primary among his concerns are that Mexicans previously deported from the United States will still face harsh barriers in gaining status in the country; that young people who grew up in the United States, but were deported to Mexico, will continue to face difficult futures in both countries; and that family reunification will remain elusive for many.

Major provisions in the bill resulted from negotiations between the American Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, as well as United Farmworkers and other groups. All of the Chamber of Commerce criteria are included in the bill (more border security, more temporary workers, tight criteria for citizenship and a “balanced and workable employment verification system”). Some even say the bill could become a financial windfall for corporate America. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “immigration reform would offer an economic stimulus far superior to anything Mr. Obama has come close to delivering in his first four years.”

The economic motivations behind the agreement have raised concerns among advocates. “We see that at the root of the migration reform there are political and economic interests and not humane or justice-oriented interests,” said Rubén Figueroa, himself a former migrant to the United States who now supports Central Americans crossing Mexico on their way to the United States. “If there aren’t specific agreements around labor and human rights, they’ll become slaves with documents.”

The majority of Central Americans crossing Mexico do so as undocumented migrants, and their journey is perilous because of organized crime and corruption among Mexican police and immigration officials. Multiple massacres of migrants have taken place in Mexico since former president Felipe Calderón launched the war on drugs in 2006. The $3 billion plus in the US bill slated for reinforcing the border wall and stepping up drones and enforcement along the border is a frontal assault on their safety and mobility, many feel.

Members of Mexico’s financial elite, who see the health of the Mexican economy as tied directly to growth in the United States, have also applauded immigration reform. “For the United States, immigration reform is fundamental, because immigration reform will provide a demographic structure that is much wider, much younger, with a workforce that will allow them to maintain Social Security, which is very expensive to public finances, and it will permit important rates of growth in sectors in which the United States has lost competitiveness,” said Luis Tellez, the president of the Bolsa Mexicana de Valores (BMV) during a presentation in Mexico City in mid-April.

But the growth of the Mexican economy, spurred by deregulation and deals like the North America Free Trade Agreement, does not mean there are less people looking to go to the United States. Instead, the destruction of internal markets and price structures linked to agricultural activities has made survival for many in rural Mexico a question of migrate or die.

For Don Arias, a 40-year-old father of three who is preparing to leave his home in the southern state of Tabasco, Mexico, to work on a crab farm in the United States, the decision to go to the United States was of pure need. “There’s a lack of work here in Mexico; the problem is totally economic,” he told Truthout. “The situation right now is a little difficult.” He said he has no interest in staying to live in the United States and would prefer to stay in Mexico, but there is no way he can support his family with the wages he would earn here. From the United States, he is able to send home up to $300 a week to his family. Working full time in Mexico, he might clear $40 a week.

Don Arias was aware of the possibility of immigration reform in the United States, but wasn’t aware of the details. He said a more just system would, in his opinion, allow workers to change employers, as his current visa status requires him to stay with a single employer, regardless of whether or not there is work.

In addition to the economic hardships that many Mexicans face, violence has surged linked to the drug war, with approximately 120,000 homicides over the past six years and another 27,000 people reported disappeared.

Throughout the militarization of Mexico and the rise in violence, the United States has maintained that US-Mexico relations are the closest in history. While Obama focused on the Immigration Reform Bill during his visit to Mexico, it should not be evaluated apart from his administration’s support for the drug war, which, it is felt, goes a long way toward undermining justice and security for migrants and their families.

The multiple tragedies lived by the Trujillo Herrera family shows how high the stakes can be for people who are deported or who decide to return to Mexico after living in the United States. In Trujillo Herrera’s case, his desire to unify his family in the context of increasing violence led to events he never thought possible, and it has given him a new mission in life. “Today I don’t want to go back to the US, I have no interest in going back,” he said. “But I do want to find every single person who has been disappeared in Mexico.”

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.