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Mobility, Human Rights, and Economic Development

Lessons of the International Mexican Migrant Experience
and United States Immigration Policies

y Maria Jiménez
Houston, Texas

Maria Jiménez is director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (LEMP), a project of the American Friends Service Committee. Founded in 1987, it's goal is to reduce the abuse of authority in the enforcement of immigration laws. LEMP works with community based groups in four areas of the U.S.-Mexico border: San Diego; southern Arizona; the El Paso/New Mexico area; and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The following paper by is a work-in-progress. Click here to open a second browser window to view references cited.


Historically, the mobility and conditions of mobility of human beings has been integral to strategies of economic development. In the current global context, movements of people across international borders have been accelerated by an integrated world economy and world systems. As an international regime directed by the interests of powerful economic and political elites globally, the emerging global economic structure has determined the institutional arrangements for international mobility. At the core is the need to frame the conditions for the movement of international labor in light of the dominant strategy of development -- a strategy of high profits and low wages. The case of migration from Mexico to the United States exemplifies the nexus between immigration policy and the model of economic growth that ties the migrating population to policies of development, economic inequality and social stratification. Those complex relations define the rights and benefits of Mexican immigrants as recognized by both the United States and Mexico.

Mobility in the global system

The process of globalization, economic integration and restructuring has given rise to an increasing movement of persons across international boundaries. The international economic activities of the global system contribute to the formation of economic linkages with emigration countries, linkages that may function as bridges not only for capital but also for migration flows. “The worldwide evidence shows rather clearly that the major receiving countries tend to get immigrants from their zones of influence. ” (-- Saskia Sassen) These can be characterized in a multiplicity of transitional systems--economic, political-military, war zones, cultural and ideological zones.

Simultaneously, the consolidation of the global market promotes emigration and return migration between nation-states. As trade relations expand, a continent-wide infrastructure of transportation and communication facilitates circulation between countries and expands the network of ties and knowledge of migrants making international movement itself economically feasible and safer. Thus, international migration originates in the social, economic, political and psychological transformations that accompany the process of market creation and development. As subsistence, command or bureaucratic economic structures are replaced with market mechanisms, labor is displaced from former livelihoods and thrown into unlikely labor markets.

In short, international migration stems from current global economic development itself. Immigrants tend to come from places undergoing rapid growth and development as a result of their entrance into emerging global trade, information and production spheres. The international labor migrant, then, moves in the complex web of integrated labor markets of the global system. Since the 1960’s economic migrants from developing countries to industrialized nations have quadrupled reaching about 940,000 per year.

The transitional model of global economic development seeks to create a world-wide free trade zone for goods, capital and information. Worldwide, ease in communications and transportation have facilitated migration. At the same time, within this integrated global market, international labor migration is controlled through police actions at the border, repressive immigration policies, coercive internal sanctions and the institutionalization of the denial of fundamental human rights of the foreign-born. This seeming contradiction in nation-state policies in response to the movement of international labor migrants is deeply imbedded in the larger socio-economic and political inequalities of this emerging global system.

Maria Jimenez. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.In this view, the movement to industrialized countries is not a movement seeking “emerald cities” or “transition to prosperity” (-- C. Roe Goddard) but a response to the structural politics of economic integration created and imposed by global economic elites and their institutions domestically and internationally. Migration cannot be separated from the policies of debt collection that has produced a staggering net transfer of financial resources from South to North -- $155 billion between 1984 and 1990. Economic policies imposed on debtor-nations by multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in acquiescence with domestic elites and national governments have caused untold human suffering and widespread environmental destruction, rendering these countries with few resources to invest in economic and human recovery.

In sending countries, these structural adjustments involve an economic assault on living standards and political assault on the organized basis of popular resistance to austerity and adjustment. Together this reality provides the framework for the “permanent condition of economic suffering to ensure the preservation of the existing socioeconomic structures of a high profit-low wage strategy of development in the emerging institutions and arrangements of global integration and disparate wealth distribution among social classes domestically and internationally. From the migrant’s perspective, flight is a rational solution to the economic equivalent of flight from the wasteland of a “scorched-earth strategy.” (-- C. Roe Goddard.)

However, the autonomous, unregulated movement of persons pose a challenge to existing and newly forming economic and political structures on a global scale. Clearly in this process, of increasing economic integration and wealth production, a contradiction results in the desire for political and economic control of a weakened nation-state on the one hand, and the absence of a fully institutionalized international regime or organization to manage or structure movements of people on the other. The nation-state becomes the regulator of the movement of persons through its immigration control policies and through these, the continuation of the strategy of development of those guiding the current global economic configuration, i.e., the strategy of high profits-low wages. Nation-state immigration and border management policies also develop mechanisms for the minimization of conflict, social movements or conditions that pressure toward a redistribution of wealth, income or power among social classes internally and externally.

Country studies of immigration policy and control of receiving nations indicate a marked convergence of national policies, norms and procedures, providing similar responses to cross-border movements despite major differences in their domestic political economies and histories. In all of these, nation-state regulatory schemes condition the mobility across borders differently for international migrants within the global class structure. Economic and political elites move without obstacles in this global arrangement. Immigration and border control policies in this global system have made it possible for a minority to become more and more mobile by providing the legal flexibility for the exit and entrance of government officials, business owners, executives, administrators, and support technical labor while limiting that of low-skilled labor and the internationally working poor or internationally displaced who are poor.

Physical and other barriers to the movement of people have proliferated for poor international migrants. In fact, most people, have become less and less mobile in the sense of being able to travel and move as they want, given the system of state control of movement through passports, exit and entry visas and militarized borders. In this way, the nation-state border control policies are shaped to ensure the inequality of mobility as a part of the maintenance of the larger socio-economic inequalities on a national and international scale. Erecting borders for international labor makes it difficult for large numbers of workers to leave areas considered “favorable” for the establishment and expansion of transitional production units such as the assembly plants and at the same time, creates the legal mechanisms for the increased exploitation of international migrants in dynamic and expanding economic sectors in receiving countries. In this manner, border control is sought as a policy decision not so much to stop unauthorized migration, but to frame the conditions in which international labor participates in the economic, social and political spheres in both countries of origin and receiving countries. Sustaining regulatory schemes that guarantee control and the inequality of mobility is essential for this strategy of high profits and low wages. For that reason, the use of armed force, border policing agencies, including the military, and institutional violence are necessary aspect of the global economic structure to enforce compliance with immigration and border control policies. In fact, the combination of global economic development, military integration, and the denial of rights of displaced populations, domestically and internationally, reproduce a de facto system of slavery for marginalized economic and social sectors, particularly the international migrants.

The case of Mexico

No other border control policies better illustrate this complex global integration and inequality of the movement of persons than those of the United States with respect to its border with Mexico. “The most fundamental and enduring migration issue in North America is the migration of Mexican nationals to the United States.” (-- Susan Gzesh.) Along with debt and trade, migration is a product of the most integrated relationship in the world between a rich and poor country. Mexico’s debt to US banks totals about 150 billion dollars. Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the US--70% of Mexico’s trade is from US companies; they are the largest world co-producers. Labor market interdependence is highly integrated through various mechanisms of which migration flows is one of them. According to the Mexico-US Binational Commission Study on Migration, Mexican migration to the United States is a structural phenomenon that has intensified in the last thirty years, reflecting the advanced economic consolidation of markets and human and social capital between the two countries.

According to sociologist and researcher Douglas Massey undocumented migrants are the result of the strategy of economic development of free trade zones and other neo-liberal polices of market consolidation and expansion. In several studies, Massey concludes that US immigration policies are shaped by incorrect assumptions regarding the causes of migration between the two countries. His research has found that neither wage differentials nor social services are motivating factors in these migration flows from Mexico. To the contrary, migrants, especially the undocumented, come from the Mexican communities that are most dynamic and rapidly restructuring under the neo-liberal model of development. The higher the wages in a person’s community, and the higher the percentage of women employed in manufacturing, the greater the probability of leaving on a first undocumented trip to the United States. These dynamic communities create an economic environment that stimulate migration.

At the same time, to maximize benefits for economic and political elites in Mexico and outside of it, the economic approach of free trade and market integration has obligated the additional imposition of structural adjustment programs by international financial institutions that have encouraged rather than discouraged labor migration. In urban areas, workers have been shed in record numbers from government bureaucracies, state owned firms and private companies. In rural areas, privatization has brought a wave of land consolidation, mechanization, and a shift to capital intensive production methods, all of which have worked to displace subsistence farmers and small landowners. The Binational Study estimated that the total Mexican-born population in the United States is currently between 7 and 7.3 million, with 2.3 to 2.4 million residing without authorization. This transfer of population, legal and undocumented, follow the patterns of economic restructuring and integration between the two countries.

Traditionally, concern for “borders out of control” in US public debate and policy has always been about the 2000 miles of the US-Mexico border and never about the 4000 miles of the US-Canadian border. According to the Urban Institute, only four out of ten undocumented individuals who are illegally in the country entered by crossing the southern border; the other six entered with legal visas that later expired. Yet 85% of all resources of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, including the Border Patrol, are located in southern border communities. Clearly, the increases in border enforcement resources, changes in the scope of authority for immigration law enforcement which includes those of social service agencies and the expansion of punitive measures for entering and remaining without authorization have focused primarily on selectively applying these to the Mexican-born population entering or residing in the United States. Mexican nationals represent 39 to 55 per cent (depending on sources) of the undocumented immigrants in the US, but they are 90 per cent of those arrested for illegal entry by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In non-border areas of the nation, including major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, immigration law enforcement operations too are conducted in worksites, neighborhoods and settlements of the Mexican-origin population even in the presence of other undocumented nationalities such as the Polish, Irish or Canadians.

The principal effect of US policies to discourage undocumented migration from Mexico are ineffective in deterring transitional movement; their principal effect is to drive migration further underground with serious consequences for the migrants themselves. Walls, more agents and military support at the border only redirect the flows of undocumented migrants to other parts of the border, delaying entry an increasing the risks to migrants as they move toward more dangerous and remote areas of the border. A recent University of Houston Study estimated that 190 to 300 persons die annually attempting to cross the southern border; countless more die crossing the deserts, dry terrain and mountains of the interior land mass as migrants move to avoid detection by immigration authorities. In addition, the Mexican population in the US bears the burden of civil and human rights violations and de stabilization in communities due to the discriminatory enforcement of immigration laws. The most recent report to re-examine allegations of ill-treatment by the Border Patrol and other police agencies on the southern border was issued in May of 1998 by Amnesty International in which it concluded that people who reported mistreatment were “almost exclusively of Latin American descent” and within these, mostly of Mexican origin. The human rights consequences transcends immigration status when it comes to the Mexican-origin population. In a study by the University of Arizona, 18 percent of 200 randomly surveyed persons in South Tucson indicated that they had been mistreated by immigration officials. Of these, 60 per cent were citizens born in the United States.

These immigration law enforcement measures and structural violence generated by these on individuals and communities reinforces the notion of temporality, immobility and control Mexican labor, ensuring high profitability in industries on both sides of the border. It attempts to form a captive labor force for the assembly plants in Mexico; at the same time, US immigration policy is an artificial and misdirected effort to intervene in the economic transactions between willing sellers of labor and willing buyers of by interposing armed force both at the border and at the worksite. Its purpose is to increase the profitability in sectors employing immigrants particularly undocumented immigrants. Ultimately, dependence of many US industries on undocumented labor encourages contempt for the law, fosters contraband in human beings and the widespread falsification of identity documents. Making undocumented workers more defenseless makes them more desirable to those who seek to exploit them. With 6.5 million employers in the US, the Department of Labor inspects about 30,000 to 40,000 per year--meaning that employers face little real chance of being penalized for wage, hour and work authorization violations. For example, the story of the deaf Mexicans in two houses in Queens is illustrative of the legal vulnerability of undocumented immigrants who do not use legal remedies to which they are entitled for fear of their forced removal by immigration authorities and who then are subjected to virtual enslavement.

Another example is the denial of the international right to employment for undocumented international migrants embodied in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Douglas Massey and colleagues in their research found that before IRCA migrants without documents earned the same wages as those with them and that specific rate of pay was determined by a person’s education, duration of US experience and English-language ability. After IRCA, undocumented Mexican migrants earned wages 28 percent below those earned by documented migrants with similar characteristics. In addition other studies suggest that working conditions likewise worsened, with higher proportions of migrants earning wages below the legal minimum and working under irregular circumstances. US attempts to eliminate the lure of jobs through employer sanctions had significant negative effects on certain native groups. Thus employer sanctions contributed to deterioration of wages at the lower end of the labor market and the exacerbation of income inequality in the United States.

In addition, tougher border enforcement policies do not deter migrants from entering the United States, but do discourage them form returning home. Migrants stay longer in the US and cut the length of time spent in Mexico between trips. The restriction of legal means of entry and of permanency lowers the odds of documented migration and raises the likelihood of undocumented migration. The overall flow of migrants has continued to grow as before, with the composition shifting from legal to illegal. In sum, restricting legal migration and beefing up the border have not succeeded in reducing the flow of undocumented Mexican migrants. These policies have simply transformed a heretofore circular movement into much more of a unidirectional flow. Migrants otherwise disposed to return have been given a strong incentive to remain in the US. In the end US policies increased the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. In the context of immigration law enforcement, the international Mexican labor force is placed in a position of illegally, vulnerability, exploitation and socio-political marginalization.

In a historical continuum, this is nothing new for the Mexican-origin populations in the United States. Racism, exclusion and segregation are all too familiar. The only change currently is that this fervor takes place in the context of the inequalities produced by a global economic system. In the short run, a realistic approach to cross-border movements on the US-Mexico border is to recognize them as an inevitable consequence of the ongoing processes of market integration and economic restructuring presently occurring between Mexico and the United States and formally recognized by NAFTA. Binational agreements on the regulation of migratory flows within both countries must move toward the development of a flexible and equitable legal framework for the movement of people in both directions that is based on the respect and protection of human rights and dignity. In the long run, the construct of immigration control policies must evolve as a product of the mutual agreement and acknowledgment of the people of both countries, that together work to construct a world of economic equity, social inclusion, participatory democracy and peace.

Implications for cross-border organizing

The inequality of mobility framed by immigration and border control policies resulting from the integration and restructuring of the Mexican and US economies place any social movement to protect and defend the rights of Mexican migrants on the international plane of the inequities being produced by the neo-liberal model of development. The mode of cross-border organizing has to begin with the affected individuals and communities; these have to comprehend the role of economic global development and its impact on population movements, particularly of Mexico and the United States. In addition, relationships of non-govermental organizations need to be strengthened to insert the rights of migrants in the human rights and global economic justice debate. One aspect is to denounce violations of rights enunciated in international declarations, covenants and agreements; a second aspect is to seek redress for these abuses at local, national and international forums: and a third is to develop policy options to expand the legal framework for migrating and permanent residency.

Finally, the exodus of labor form Mexico into the United States and its situation in US society, requires that cross-border efforts work to establish the right of mobility and equality of mobility of all human beings as an internationally recognized fundamental right and codified as such. Current international law on human rights limits the discourse of mobility to the right to leave and reenter one’s country without restriction and the right of asylum, remaining silent on the human aspect of the right to move as part of the reality of international migrants in today’s global system.

As long as the right to mobility continues without recognition, the movement of persons across international borders is left without rules of protection and defense before the absolute sovereign rights of the nation-state. Thus, all levels of cross-border organizing for social justice have to integrate documentation of the impact of economic, political and social systems of mobility of Mexican migratory flows and experience in order to then raise the concrete call to develop international laws and protections acknowledging the right of all human beings to move from country to country under equal circumstances and to live anywhere in the world in dignity and peace.

The Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (LEMP) is a project of the American Friends Service Committee. Founded in 1987, it's goal is to reduce the abuse of authority in the enforcement of immigration laws. LEMP works with community based groups in four areas of the U.S.-Mexico border: San Diego; southern Arizona; the El Paso/New Mexico area; and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

In Texas, LEMP works with the Valley Coalition for Justice. Their work is primarily in the McAllen area of the Border Patrol and covers a large area including Brownsville, and Harlingen County. In El Paso, LEMP works with the El Paso Border Rights Coalition. In Arizona LEMP works with the Derechos Humanos Arizona Border Projects Coalition, a coalition of social justice groups, unions, and members of indigenous nations effected by border policies. In San Diego, LEMP works with the AFSC Office of the U.S. Mexico Border Program.

Nationally LEMP works with the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the National Immigration Project of the Lawyers Guild, and Coordinadora 2000. Cross-border, LEMP coordinates with human rights organizations on the Mexico side of the border, and, in Arizona, with indigenous nations whose members are on the Mexican side of the border.

Published in In Motion Magazine - July 12, 1999.

Also see:

  • Interview with Maria Jimenez (2001)
    “We must not equate immigration with terrorism”
    Houston, Texas

  • Interview with Maria Jiménez (1998)
    The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border
    - Border Communities Respond to Militarization Accountability and Direct Involvement
    2 - From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol Life and Culture in U.S.-Mexico Border Communities
    Houston, Texas

  • Immigration Issues (index of articles)