Panel Takes a Deep Look at U.S. and Mexican Relations

Public Radio International’s “America Abroad” hosts discussion at GW about immigration and trade between the two countries.

From left, WAMU-FM "1-A" Host Joshua Johnson, Boston College Professor Peter Skerry, former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner and former USAID deputy administrator for Latin America Jose Cardenas. (Wiliam Atkins/GW Today)
May 15, 2017

By B.L. Wilson

Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president in 2015 with a pledge to build “a big, beautiful wall” along the 2,000 mile U.S.–Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants, promising that Mexico would pay for that wall.

The impact of Mr. Trump’s comments on the future of U.S. and Mexican security, immigration and trade issues was the topic of “Beyond the Border,” a town hall held by PRI’s “America Abroad” at George Washington University’s Marvin Center Thursday night.

Jose Cardenas, a deputy administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development under President George W. Bush, characterized the wall as “an outsized image” of America’s frustration with Washington over implementing immigration law and concerns about U.S. safety.

Mr. Cardenas was part of a panel moderated by Joshua Johnson of WAMU-FM’s nationally syndicated program “1A.” Mr. Johnson asked Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Services (now called ICE) to update the audience of immigration advocates, GW students and others on the status of immigration in the United States.

“There are now more people born in Mexico returning to Mexico than coming from Mexico to the United States,” she said, adding that immigrants still are trying to enter the country along the border without authorization. “But it is dramatically less, really at a 50-year low.”

There’s an economic explanation, Ms. Meissner said. Mexico is producing more jobs that are a better match for its population, fertility rates in the country are declining, and there’s been stronger enforcement along the border.

Several issues have confused the immigration situation, according to Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College. While there’s been a decline in undocumented immigrants from Mexico, he said, Central Americans are entering the U.S. across the border sometimes fleeing the violence of drug gangs and also to take advantage of economic opportunities in the United States.

Advocates for workers and for mothers with children fleeing the violence often blur the distinctions between immigrants and refugees, he said, though the law treats each differently.

“One reason why the segments of the American public are so riled up and responsive to the rhetoric of somebody like President Trump is because the rhetoric on the other side is so over the top.”

In January, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that expanded the list of immigrants that can be deported, which Patricia Zapor of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network said has led to stories of families being wrenched apart, in situations where one partner may be legal, the other illegal and the children are U.S. citizens.

“People have good reason to be terrified,” she said. “Even at the border, people who present themselves seeking asylum increasingly are being told, ‘Go away.’” By law they have the right to make the case for why they should be allowed to stay before being sent back home, she added.

The slowness with which previous administrations responded to conditions in the Central American triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has compounded a problem that Mr. Cardenas said is driven by an insatiable demand for illegal drugs in this country.

The U.S. Congress provided $750 million in aid to assist countries in the region with enforcement, but the long-term solution Ms. Meissner said, lies in measures like NAFTA that contributed to economic growth in Mexico and stemmed the flow of immigrants from that country.

Mr. Trump has threatened to pull out of NAFTA or renegotiate the 23-year-old treaty, calling it “the single worst trade deal ever.”

Mr. Cardenas contended that the deal was a net gain for the United States. “We don’t so much lose jobs as jobs shift,” he said. “They shift into new sectors, new industries and take advantage of new opportunities.”

Dr. Skerry found the argument evasive. “That’s true as an aggregate,” he said, “but a substantial number of Americans are losing jobs and don’t necessarily find other jobs.”

Mr. Cardenas conceded that more should have been done to retrain U.S. workers and help them adjust to the shifts in the marketplace.

The conundrum is that while Americans are losing jobs, the United States is still dependent on millions of lower-skilled, low-wage workers from Mexico and Central America, who make up three-quarters of the labor in the agriculture sector and half of the dairy industry.

Under current immigration allotments, only 5,000 visas are available for lower-skilled workers, said Ms. Meissner. “The labor market demand that is part of our economy at the present time cannot be met with the current immigration laws legally. That’s one of the primary reasons that they need to be reformed.”

“Beyond the Border” is scheduled to air on PRI’s America Abroad the first week of June.


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