The Other Side of the Immigration Equation

To be effective, immigration policy must be designed in collaboration with immigrant-sending states. Otherwise, reforms will result in little more than maintaining the array of punitive measures that dominate how we deal with immigrants currently. 

Because emigration states, those with high numbers of emigrants like Mexico, had nothing to do with the design of today’s American policies, they are free to protest against them and damage our standing in the world community. By posturing as defenders of their abused citizens, sending-state governments camouflage the extent to which their domestic policies contribute to making undocumented immigration a major political problem for this nation. 

Because emigration states are implicated in creating unauthorized immigration, the U.S. must work with them to manage it. Their participation will expand the lens through which they U. S officials view any new immigration policy. Indeed, it is only through such collaboration that a policy will be developed that deals with push factors that stimulate emigration, as well as pull factors that attract immigrants.

The new policy this collaboration should yield must be comprehensive and avoid piecemeal solutions. This requires that U. S. and foreign decision makers understand that immigration is an intermestic issue, that is, it simultaneously involves domestic issues in more than one country and affects the relations those countries have with each other.

Sending states understand, but do not acknowledge, the extent to which they are part of the problem. This is because they cannot admit they are so dependent on emigration economically and politically. Emigration generates remittances which are an economic lifeline that states rely on to reduce poverty. It also serves as a political safety valve that enables unresponsive and corrupt regimes to maintain their control by making it preferable for disgruntled citizens to vote with their feet than to confront their governments.

The domestic policies of sending states suggest why unauthorized immigration is so high. Well-designed and implemented fiscal policy can be the foundation of political and social development. Latin America’s major sending states, however, have not used such policies to promote growth or reduce inequality. To the contrary, sending state spending does not result in redistributing resources nor does it provide public services that meet the public’s needs or encourage citizens to look to the state for relief. 

While most of the needs of those who do not migrate go unmet, sending state governments work assiduously to assist their emigrants resolve their problems. Consuls from Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and other major emigrant states devote a great deal of their time to helping the undocumented establish businesses and secure access to social services including schools and medical care. Mexico has gone even further and become involved in protecting unauthorized immigrants by joining the federal lawsuit against Arizona on the grounds that Arizona’s law violated immigrants’ civil rights and implementing initiatives designed to obviate the need for official documents verifying the legal status of immigrants.

The current debate ignores the role sending states play in promoting unauthorized immigration. Clearly, however, immigration requires input and policy changes on both sides of the US border. Without such collaboration, whatever policy is developed is unlikely to provide incentives that will result in sending states helping to manage unauthorized immigration, and absent their involvement no reform can be successful.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.