Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The U.S. and Mexico: Two Nations Indivisible

by Micah Zenko
April 10, 2013

Policymakers are attempting to broker a bi-partisan deal that would allow undocumented people living in the United States could apply for permanent legal residency. Democrats want those individuals who either entered the United States illegally, or entered legally and then overstayed their visas (fully 40% of the 11 million undocumented workers) to be able “to earn citizenship so they can come out of the shadows,” in the White House’s words. Republicans, meanwhile, seek to “secure the border,” which specifically means the Department of Homeland Security certifying that the  U.S.-Mexico border is 100% under surveillance, and 90% of those who cross illegally at “high risk” sections were apprehended.

The alleged threat posed by an “insecure” southern border has fallen dramatically. Annual immigration from Mexico is at its lowest point in the past forty years, in large part because of greater economic opportunities in Mexico, and increased personnel and funding for border enforcement. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security had 28,100 people securing U.S. borders at a cost of $5.89 billion. Today it is 41,400 for $11.8 billion. Moreover, it is notable that the vast majority of those arrested at the borders are economic opportunists, not security threats. Of the 119,110 border arrests last year, only 253 (.2%) originated from what the GAO calls states at “increased risk of sponsoring terrorism.”

If you are interested in how U.S.-Mexican relations have evolved along the border and beyond, I highly recommend an excellent and thoughtful new book from my CFR colleague Shannon O’Neil: Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead. She demonstrates how the American people overwhelming view their southern neighbor through the dire lens of poverty, corruption, and violence. However: “Mexico’s real story today is one of fundamental political, economic, and social transformation: from authoritarianism to democracy, from a closed to an open economy, and from a poor society to a middle class nation.” Moreover, since the futures of both countries are intertwined, policymakers in Washington should work with their counterparts in Mexico City to “increase accountability, expand economic and social opportunities, and strengthen the role of law” in Mexico.  For the specifics on how this can be achieved, you should buy the book.

Among the many interesting facts that I learned:

–In 2011, when Ciudad Juarez had some five murders a day, El Paso (right across the border) had sixteen homicides.

–Murder and robbery rates in cities within fifty miles of the border are consistently lower than state and nation averages. Cities along or near the border — El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, Austin – are consistently safer than not just their Mexican neighbors, but also other similar size cities in the United States.

–Corruption cases against U.S. border agents grew almost fourfold from 2006 to 2011.

–Of the 10% of border patrol applicants taking lie-detector tests, more than half fail.

–Revenue flowing back to Mexico from U.S. drug sales is estimated to be between $6 billion and $23 billion annually.

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