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What's behind Mexico's silence on immigration debate?

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The days when a Mexican president would raise the battle cry for US immigration reform are long past.

Since a bipartisan group of US senators unveiled their proposal this week to resolve the status of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, and President Obama outlined a set of principles for reform, the Mexican government has stayed quietly out of the fray – sparking questions here about what, if any, role Mexico should play.

Mexico has more at stake than many other nations whose people leave for US shores: Fully 10 percent of the Mexican population resides in the US. Sixty percent of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living and working in the US are Mexican, according to Pew Hispanic Center.

“The current Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto has been very careful to say that they are not going to interfere in the domestic decisions of the US,” says Jesus Velasco, a political science professor at Tarleton State University in Texas. “It’s silly. The American political system permits that the interests of foreign countries should be represented here.”

Mr. Velasco cited the effective lobbying by the Mexican government on NAFTA in the 1990s. But immigration has been a stickier issue.

Immigration was once the central theme of the bilateral relationship. A decade ago, former Mexican President Vicente Fox met with President George W. Bush five times in nine months to discuss the issue and in an address to Congress boldly requested action before the end of the year. That was in 2001, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The agenda quickly fell apart.

Former President Felipe Calderón wiped immigration off the slate in 2006 and retrained the focus of the US-Mexico relationship on security. Today, six years later, Mr. Peña Nieto appears poised to do the same.

So far the only public comment on the proposals has come from the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs, which said in a brief statement that it “recognizes the commitment demonstrated by an ever larger number of parties” on the issue but noted that reform is an “internal matter” for the US federal government.

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Work to do at home

Mexico’s real work today – given that net emigration from Mexico to the US fell to zero in the past year – lies not in promoting reform in the US but in ensuring economic opportunity for people here, says Antonio de la Cuesta, a senior political analyst with Mexico City-based think tank CIDAC.

“The focus has been wrong,” he says. “Mexico waits for the US to do everything. It’s about both countries [taking action].”

Roughly half of Mexicans live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. Last year, Mexico’s social development agency reported the number of Mexicans living in extreme poverty at 13 million.

Mexican immigration to the US may have slowed because of the recession in the US and increased enforcement at the border, but the conditions that have historically driven people north haven’t yet changed. For many Mexicans, a daily wage here amounts to less than the hourly wage in the US.

There are consequences for Mexico, too, in whatever the US decides, says Mr. De la Cuesta. For example, he asks, would Mexicans living in the US bring additional family members north, and stop sending the remittances that rank among the country’s top three income sources?

Mexico needs a “complementary” proposal, he says: solutions for poverty.

“Mexico has a lot to say in this respect,” he says, “and no reason to interfere.”


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