Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Secretary Clinton, Don’t Forget Immigration

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 25, 2009

envio-de-dineroSecretary of State Hillary Clinton’s heads to Mexico today. The main issue on the agenda with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa will undoubtedly be security. The rising power and violence of Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) covers the front pages of newspapers throughout both countries, and is a priority for policymakers in both capitals. Yet as these two nations focus on their mutual security, the United States should not forget about other bilateral issues – in particular immigration. This is an important topic in and of itself, and perhaps the most important issue on the bilateral agenda for Mexico. But it is also intrinsically related to security. Immigration reform would boost U.S. and Mexican efforts to lessen the reach of the drugs cartels’ on both sides of the border.

The drug cartels’ operations are fueled by one thing: money. This money buys guns, buys people, and buys power. The vast majority of this money – estimated at some $15-20 billion dollars a year – comes from drug sales in the United States. These profits are then sent back to Mexico, and fuel the insecurity and violence.

Mexican immigrants also send back large amounts of money – about $25 billion in remittances every year – to aid their families and help support their communities. This occurs mostly through money transmitters such as Western Union or through informal mechanisms such as “viajeros”—individuals who travel between countries carrying remittances in cash. Many immigrants use these means – rather than formal bank accounts – because they are underregulated and therefore less threatening to those without documents. U.S.-issued personal identification cards are not usually required and few questions are asked.

These same characteristics make these systems attractive to DTOs. The U.S. government, through the Department of Homeland Security as well as through state and local efforts, is beefing up efforts to target these flows. DHS is focusing more resources on bulk cash smuggling, sending 360 more officers and agents to the border as part of a recently launched multi-agency $700 million dollar plan. In one week in March DHS seized $4.5 million in south-bound bulk cash on the border. On the state level, Arizona in particular has been very active. Attorney General Terry Goddard has brought seizure warrants against suspect money transfers, and between 2003 and 2007 has seized over $17 million through intercepted wire transfers. Nevertheless, these are paltry fractions of the money heading south. Drug profits mingle among and are camoflouged by the steady stream of remittances sent by Mexican migrants in the United States. Finding the DTOs funds among the billions sent every year by millions of people without proper documentation in the U.S. will remain a huge challenge.

Immigration reform would alleviate in part this security challenge. While legislators differed in recent years over various issues, every realistic immigration reform proposal presented includes a process for undocumented immigrants to step forward and undergo background checks in order to receive proper documentation. This process would, first of all, help authorities identify criminals among the undocumented immigrant population. It would also facilitate migrants’ access to formal banking, and in the process help separate legal and illegal money flows and transactions. Bringing the United States’ over 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows would limit the DTOs main monetary hideout.

Immigration reform would also cut into DTOs profits in other ways. As the border tightened and the cartels’ territories changed, many DTOs diversified their businesses beyond drugs into kidnapping, extortion and other types of smuggling – including people. The tighter border means would-be immigrants are increasingly using coyotes, or smugglers, to help them cross, and in the process funding these criminal organizations. The rates charged by smugglers have climbed precipitously in recent years from about $500 to close to $3,000, and there are also reports that some force migrants to carry drugs with them as part of their payment. An immigration reform that recognizes the supply and demand forces in the bilateral labor market, and provides a legal means for Mexicans to enter the United States would cut back on this flow of illegal entries, again hurting the profits of the drug cartels.

Finally, a recent Departmant of Justice Report shows that Mexican DTOs have established networks in over 200 U.S. cities. This distribution chain – the anchor of their business – thrives in part because these nefarious elements can hide among a larger population forced to live underground. Fearing deportation, undocumented individuals are unlikely to contact the authorities about suspicious activity, to report crimes, or to step forward to cooperate with U.S. authorities. Immigrants’ marginal status in the United States gives many criminals refuge.

As Mexico becomes a foreign policy priority, the Obama administration should not lose sight of the broader bilateral relationship. A myopic focus on security will not only limit a much broader agenda, but it will hinder the very efforts to improve security. Issues of security, immigration, trade, the environment, and infrastructure are interrelated, and success in one area will remain dependent on success in the others.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daquela Manera under a Creative Commons license.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by JohnLopresti

    Codevelopment with MX will continue to be a diversified endeavor. Entrenched interests deserve returns in new policymaking based on creativity of intended outcomes. The DoJ and other entities have reported considerable range of importance among the various smuggler drugs, some have lower impact upon society, others are known to be more pernicious. Xenophobic rhetoric will adapt the most suitable rhetorical vehicle for its ends. A better course will be restoration of NAFTA to a healthy force within both economies, that of the US, and the one which sustains MX as our southern neighbor progresses to a genuine two-party system. Let us not be distracted by specious overbroad characterizations of what is happening in the current strife over drugs, when the issues of education and employment are important infrastructural issues to citizens of MX who wish to live in MX. In this time of intensified scrutiny of immigration and travel of all genres, achieving a resolution of NAFTA-centric concerns of both countries will continue to be complexified by these concurrent and genuine worries in a world with global terrorism. The US moved to support the peso in a transition a few decades ago. Let us move to help MX strengthen its business while helping MX provide an increasingly attractive environment for its own people, to decrease migratory pressure. The current administration’s policies of seeking to support labor arrangements, as well as vehicular based commerce across the frontier are important first steps. But there is a wider field of engagement that the US can enter to strengthen our bonds, and even to enhance the freedoms at home in MX which its citizens so deeply appreciate and want to see grow.

  • Posted by kyledeb

    Great to see your concerns on migration policy. Email me at kyle at citizenorange dot com. I’d love to be in touch.

  • Posted by RD Eisenhart

    I believe your final statement is completely correct. You state that “A myopic focus on security will not only limit a much broader agenda, but it will hinder the very efforts to improve security.” I believe this is true, but for different reasons which pose a greater threat to US national security.

    As you mention The 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment labeled Mexican DTO’s and their gang affiliates as representing “the greatest organized crime threat to the US” with an estimated presence in 230 American cities, if not more. Even more frightening is the increasing level of violence taking place on American soil by these cartels. Ted G. Carpenter, of the CATO Institute, asserts that violence has reached a level where the Zeta cartel now instructs members to engage US law enforcement if they intervene in their operations.

    I believe that by maintaining a focus on security, the United States is only asking for further instability along the border. The US and Mexico need to fundamentally re-think how they fight the DTOs in Mexico. Helping Mexico by increasing their military capabilities, such as recent donation of Black Hawk Helicopters will only result in the DTOs increasing their firepower, which is the vary reason why the Mexican government now needs these new helicopters.

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