Mexico's Economy Is the Problem That Anti-Immigrant Laws Won't Solve

Conservatives should understand that an economic turnaround in Mexico is central to solving the undocumented migration challenge in the United States.
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The Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee has cleared the way for a host of bills targeting undocumented immigrants. SB 1611, Senate President Russell Pearce's latest effort to punish the state's immigrant community with harsh sanctions and restrictions, was one of them. This comes on the heels of legislation introduced a couple weeks ago in the Arizona legislature attacking birthright citizenship of children born to undocumented parents.

SB 1611 will head to the Senate floor after clearing a narrow 7-6 vote in which two of the committee's nine Republicans voted against the bill. SB 1611 seeks to ban undocumented immigrant kids from K-12 education if their parents cannot produce a U.S. birth certificate or naturalization documents. The bill would also force Arizona businesses to use E-Verify, the federal immigration database. Those who don't could have their business license revoked. The bill would also forbid undocumented students from attending community college and state universities, even if they paid out-of-state tuition, and cut undocumented immigrants off from emergency medical care. People who want to file for a marriage license would need to show their immigration papers. And people would not be able to buy or operate vehicles without producing proof of legal residence. If they're caught driving without proper documentation they could face a month of jail time.

Portions of SB 1611 are clearly unconstitutional. In the 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' attempt to stop undocumented children from attending K-12 schools. The business licenses revocation issue is currently before the Supreme Court in another Arizona case. And the emergency medical care prohibition is doomed to fail any constitutional reasonableness test.

Arizona's pending legislation attacking birthright citizenship of children born to undocumented parents is treading on thin constitutional ice as well. The U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the citizenship language of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes that pretty clear. In 1898, the Court confronted the issue in a case involving Wong Kim Ark, a man born in San Francisco whose parents were both immigrants from China. He was born at a time when the Constitution barred Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. The key phrase in the 14th Amendment that the Court had to review was the grant of citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof." The Court concluded that the language covered all children born in the U.S. except those who were: (1) born to foreign rulers or diplomats, (2) born on foreign public ships, or (3) born to enemy forces engaged in hostile occupation of the country's territory. It's obvious that the children and undocumented parents who are being targeted by the Arizona legislative proposals do not fall into any of those sections. It's also evident that the undocumented parents are "subject to the jurisdiction" of the U.S. because the country deports such parents every day.

Everyone agrees that we need immigration reform. For years, Congress has attempted to strike a principled balance between greater enforcement and a fair way to adjust the status for the 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. However, even immigrant rights advocates must acknowledge that legalization will not solve undocumented migration permanently. An expansion of visas will certainly help, but if the package does not include at least the first steps toward helping Mexico improve its economy and infrastructure, undocumented Mexican migration will continue, and the tension over undocumented migration will resurface down the road. To truly understand undocumented migration, we have to do what Americans have thus far been unwilling to do: Look beyond the simple explanation that migrants cross the border in search of work. We have to ask why they cannot find what they want in Mexico. In 1994, we were told that NAFTA would solve the undocumented problem because new jobs would be created in Mexico. But NAFTA ultimately contributed to huge job losses in Mexico. Mexican corn farmers could not compete with heavily-subsidized U.S. corn farmers, and now Mexico imports most of its corn from the U.S. Because of globalization, 100,000 jobs in Mexico's domestic manufacturing sector were lost from 1993 to 2003. Where do those unemployed workers look for work? El Norte.

An economic turnaround in Mexico is central to solving the undocumented migration challenge in the United States. Conservatives should understand that. And liberals should recognize that reducing undocumented migration is in Mexico's interest as well; the persistent loss of able-bodied workers needed to build its infrastructure and economy only hurts Mexico. All of us understand that economic investment in Mexico will not and, probably, should not be done without close monitoring.

Attacking the right of undocumented children to attend school and raising the issue of birthright citizenship do little beyond stirring up more hostility toward undocumented immigrants. Worse yet, these proposals continue to distract us from the meaningful discourse needed to develop plans to address push factors in countries like Mexico.

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