A Right to Move—and to Stay Home

Recent reports indicate that the number of Mexican migrants entering the United States outside of authorized channels has declined markedly over the last several years. The question is, why? Among other matters, the answers point to the necessity of achieving livelihoods of dignity and socio-economic security in migrant-sending areas so as to allow the people who live there the option--indeed the right--to stay home.

Joseph Nevins 7/13/2011

A lot fewer Mexican migrants are entering the United States outside the confines of U.S. government’s regulatory regime. As reported in a July 5, New York Times piece, analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center of U.S. census figures show that the unauthorized Mexican migrant population “has shrunk” and that less than 100,000 “illegal” entrants and “visa-violators” from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010. In 2000-2004, by contrast, the annual count averaged 525,000.”199Border Patrol agent at boundary wall in San Ysidro, California. Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune


For the Department of Homeland Security and immigration restrictionists more broadly, this precipitous decline serves as proof of the success of the pronounced enhancement of the immigration policing apparatus that has unfolded over the last decade and more. But as the Times article, and one in the San Diego Union-Tribune on July 7, make clear, the reasons behind the shift are far more complicated and multifaceted.


Taken together, the two articles (and the research upon which they draw) demonstrate what should seem fairly obvious: that conditions in migrant-sending areas are of great importance. And while they don’t say this, they suggest that immigration—and, by extension, immigration enforcement/exclusion—are inextricably linked to international inequalities and insecurity.


Both articles point to rising levels of drug-war-related violence in the northern Mexico borderlands, the increased hardships of entering the United States due to the Clinton-Bush II-Obama-era buildup of the enforcement apparatus, and the downturn in the U.S. economy as important factors. But what they highlight are the changes in Mexico that are, they suggest, at least of equal significance. The principal ones are expanding educational and employment opportunities within Mexico and, with them, rising levels of prosperity; and rapidly declining fertility rates among Mexican women—in other words, smaller families. In terms of declining fertility, it is typically a manifestation of enhanced status of women and increased socio-economic security.


What the articles don’t consider is the extent to which such changes might be related to the long history of emigration from Mexico to the United States. Take remittances—the money migrants send back to their families and communities in Mexico—for instance. In 2008, they totaled more that $25 billion, making them second to oil as a source of foreign income for the country (at least in terms of the licit economy). There’s a good chance that (as suggested by existing research) they played a significant role in, among other outcomes, enlarging educational opportunities for Mexican youth.


Clearly, given the profound socio-economic and regional inequalities within Mexico, this “rising tide” hasn’t affected everyone equally. Indeed, that roughly 100,000 Mexican nationals still felt compelled to come to the United States in 2010 outside of authorized channels in the face of the country’s deep economic downturn, and the violences of the U.S. enforcement apparatus and the drug war in northern Mexico speaks to the persistent power of factors driving out-migration in many Mexican households and communities. It also speaks to the enduring strength of U.S.-Mexico ties that often facilitate and encourage such migration.


That said, to the extent that demographic and socio-economic changes within Mexico have contributed to a significant decline in emigration, the situation raises the question of what it takes for people to achieve livelihoods of dignity and security that effectively allow them the option to remain in their home areas.


It is for such reasons that migrant rights advocates like David Bacon and progressive human rights organizations like Global Exchange speak about a “right to stay home.” While a right to migrate has to be central to the struggle to achieve a more just world, so, too, must efforts to remedy the injustices and inequalities that drive much of the world’s large migratory flows.

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