There are many aggravating tropes that keep reemerging in the debate over immigration policy but one of the worst is that every problem with the U.S. immigration system is the result of the supposedly perfidious Mexico. Changes in Mexican law and policy certainly have an impact on immigration to the United States but it is not true that our laws would operate wonderfully even if foreign governments had policies to support them. Those who blame Mexico should, at the minimum, get their stories straight.
In many versions of this tale, the Mexican government is hypocritical because its immigration laws are strict yet it complains about laws like SB 1070 in Arizona and the deportation of Mexican citizens from the United States. Talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh famously used this rhetorical tactic when sarcastically (maybe?) proposing a series of immigration reforms that mirrored the worst of Mexican immigration law in 2007.
The Mexican government fiercely criticized the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, a bill that forced state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. When then-President of Mexico Felipe Calderon visited the White House and intended to complain about the law directly to President Obama, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) said, “I wonder if they’ll discuss whether or not Calderon supports his own country’s immigration policy.” Both Limbaugh and Poe rightly criticized Mexico’s famously restrictive, self-destructive, and hypocritical immigration policy.
Partly in response to the American criticism, Mexico gradually reformed its immigration laws beginning in 2008. In that year, Mexico reduced the punishment for illegal entry to a maximum fine of 5,000 pesos, down from a potential ten-year prison sentence. They also created a temporary agricultural guest worker visa program for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states. In 2010, the Mexican government stated that illegal immigrants would not have to fear immigration enforcement when reporting human rights violations or receiving medical treatment.
The Mexican government did not stop there. The Mexican Congress passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012. This law replaced the Mexican General Law of Population that was the source of their restrictive immigration laws. Among other things, the new Mexican immigration law allowed immigrants and migrants equal access to Mexican courts, reduced the power of local police to enforce immigration law, reformed the humanitarian admissions system, simplified entrance and reduced residency requirement by, in part, creating a points system, and created a three-day regional visitor’s visa for people from neighboring countries. In other words, Mexico liberalized and expanded its legal immigration system. Although Mexican reforms did not go far enough, they were a significant step away from protectionism toward a more liberal immigration regime.
Shortly after the Migratory Act of 2011 went into effect, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended by Border Patrol skyrocketed (Figure 1). The change in Mexican immigration law allowed Central Americans to travel to the U.S. border in greater numbers which, combined with the worsening economic and crime problems in Central America, helped exacerbate a surge of non-Mexican (OTM) illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were overwhelmingly from south of Mexico’s border (Figure 2). Other non-Mexican legal changes like the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement, that created a visa-less Central America among El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, also made it cheaper for migrants or UAC from those countries to make it to Mexico and then to the United States.
Southwest Border Monthly Border Patrol Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children
Source: Customs and Border Protection.