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Biden-AMLO and the Elusive Immigration Reform

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Washington, DC – Below is a column by Maribel Hastings and David Torres from America’s Voice en Español translated to English from Spanish. It ran in several Spanish-language media outlets earlier this week.

While the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, respectively, held their second White House meeting to discuss vital topics in bilateral relations, some things remained unresolved. And they will continue to be, as in previous administrations and despite the meetings that come and go, like the presidents of both nations. One of those central and inconclusive topics is immigration reform, which continues to lie dormant.

It’s true that during the working meeting between Biden and AMLO—in which both leaders made themselves out to be colleagues and friends, and highlighted both their trust and respect for sovereignty—they took on concrete and flashy topics for news headlines, like the $3.4 billion already dedicated to reinforcing the border, decreasing undocumented immigration, and combating drug trafficking; or the 300,000 H-2 visas that the U.S. president highlighted as a record number. But the essence of what really worries the Latino community was only touched upon, like a distant hope that has never been realized, outside of speeches.

This time, it was López Obrador’s turn to push the matter, saying that “It is indispensable for us to regularize and give certainty to migrants that have for years lived and worked in a very honest manner, and who are also contributing to the development of this great nation.” This is something as true as it is ascertainable, in practice, but which the U.S. political class prefers to neither see, nor accept—never mind legislate.

Therefore, owing to the historic relationship between Mexico and the United States, and the large part of U.S. territory that once belonged to the Mexicans, the immigration issue between the two nations has always been thorny. A majority of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States are Mexican, and they constitute the main group of immigrants to this country, almost 25% of the 45 million residents born abroad. Moreover, Mexicans’ imprint on the history, culture, economy, and soul of the United States is indelible. And their contributions, in these and other ways, are invaluable.

Referring only to commercial trade, the value reached $248.4 billion in the first quarter of this year, some 14.6% of total U.S. trade in the United States, according to Commerce Department data. That makes Mexico the second-largest trading partner of the United States, behind Canada and ahead of China.  

If we add to that the amount of remittances that Mexicans send to their country, the panorama expands and, at the same time, reinforces the economic importance of this migration. In 2021 alone, funds sent to Mexico reached a record high of $51.594 billion, an increase of 27.1% from the previous year, which reached $40.605 billion, according to the Bank of Mexico (Banxico). This figure is likely to increase, as we know that in April of 2022, according to this same institution, $4.718 billion remittances were sent.   

However, immigration reform that would legalize those Mexicans and other undocumented people has never moved from talk into action. And we’re not even talking about some of the darkest chapters of our shared history, like the Bracero program. Let’s go to the moment in 2001 when another Mexican president, Vicente Fox Quesada, the first in 71 years to come from outside the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, in its Spanish acronym), arrived in Washington, D.C. for his state visit with President George W. Bush.

Fox was the star of the moment at the international level, for ascending to the presidency of Mexico from the National Action Party (or PAN). It was September 5, 2001. The climate, it seemed, could not have been more favorable. A Republican president—Bush, pro-immigration reform—had a close relationship with Fox. On the other side, the Democratic Congress was believed to be inclined to negotiate this reform, led by giants such as Senator Edward Kennedy. The issue of the moment was the “whole enchilada” that comprehensive immigration reform aspired to be. 

Nothing could go wrong. But six days later, September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania turned this immigration reform to dust. The terrorists were mostly from Saudi Arabia, but that mattered little when it came time to painting all immigrants with the broad brush of “criminal” and “terrorist.”

This new “culture” of rejection among a large swath of U.S. society has been reinforcing itself ever since, finally achieving its quintessence with Donald Trump’s arrival to power in 2016, unleashing an anti-immigrant, racist, and xenophobic fever that will be difficult to eradicate in the short term. 

Therefore, since the setback it received in 2001, immigration reform has not recuperated fully to this day. It’s true that there have been attempts as in 2013, when the Democratic Senate approved a broad reform bill that did not see the light of day in the Republican House of Representatives. But the subsequent rise of Trumpism and the lack of Democratic political will has not been fertile ground for an immigration reform that would do everything needed, from the legalization of millions of people to substantial changes to asylum law, among other matters.

All of this to say that almost 21 years later we have another president, López Obrador, from the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), with a high approval rating—more than 60%—coming to negotiate deals with a U.S. president with very low approval ratings, barely above 30%—whether due to his own missteps or because the next person to bat always pays for the previous mistakes, even when circumstances are out of their control. 

This approval difference also matters at the negotiating table, especially between two leaders who have had to confront a migration crisis that seemed far away during this 21st century, but whose development returns us to the catacombs of the immigration question, with a completely damaged and anachronistic immigration system that no one wants to fix. Not through laws, and not through political will.

This meeting has also occurred in a terrible time due to the crisis in the U.S. asylum system, a Republican Party and Republican governors from border states like Texas propagating disinformation and racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that, unfortunately, is well-received by a wide segment of the U.S. electorate, including many Latinos. To that, add a more-than-timid Democratic Party that has not known how to confront the Republican narrative and has not made appropriate use of their control—at least for the rest of this year—of the Executive and Legislative branches.

 So what of immigration reform? It remains an elusive illusion.

To read the Spanish version of this article click here