Obama Must Act Fast on Immigration

Jorge Castañeda is Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. A renowned public intellectual, political scientist, and prolific writer, with an interest in Latin American politics, comparative politics and U.S.-Latin American relations, he is the former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), and in that position he focused on diverse issues in U.S.-Mexican relations, including migration, trade, security, and narcotics control; joint diplomatic initiatives on the part of Latin American nations; and the promotion of Mexican economic and trade relations globally.

Born in Mexico City in 1953, Dr. Castañeda received undergraduate degrees from both Princeton University and Universite de Paris-I (Pantheon-Sorbonne), an M.A. from Ecole Pratique de Hautes Etudes, Paris I, and his Ph.D. in the History of Economics from the University of Paris. He was a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1985-87) and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant Recipient (1989-1991). Among his many books are "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War" (1993), "The Mexican Shock" (1995), "Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara" (1997), and "Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen" (2000). Dr. Castañeda is a regular columnist for the Mexican daily Reforma, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek International.

  • Transcript


Question: Is illegal Mexican immigration actually a problem?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, it’s certainly not a problem in the US.  It generates problems in the US and in Mexico, but, in fact, it is a solution to many of the United States’ problems and it is a solution to many of Mexico’s problems, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t create problems also.  But, it’s largely a solution.  Why is it a solution in the US?  Because the US needs low-wage, low-skill labor to carry out a lot of jobs that Americans don’t want to do at the salary that Mexicans want to do them.  Yes, I’m sure there may be people who would like to wash dishes in restaurants in New York at $25 an hour.  I’m not sure a whole lot of restaurants could survive if they had to pay busboys $25 an hour.  The same is true for the meat packing plants in Iowa.  The same is true for picking tomatoes or oranges in Florida.  Same is true for apples or sweatshops, textile worker mills in California.  These are not good jobs by American standards.  Americans would not want those wages, would not want those working conditions.  But for Mexicans, they're so much better that they represent a very attractive destination and this helps the United States be more competitive and this helps the United States keep inflation down and this helps the United States attend, for example, to an elderly population through nursing etc., that is growing very rapidly.

For Mexico, it’s a solution or not a problem because we can’t create the number of jobs equivalent to the number of people entering the job market every year.  Why?  Because the people entering the job market today were born 20 years ago and they were born of parents who were then born 25 years before that and that’s when we had a huge population bubble.  And so, we are now having to face a lot of people entering the job market, well over a million a year, 1.2 million, 1.3 million, at least for another ten years.  And what that’s means is that we will not find jobs for them because there's too many of them and so they will go and find jobs where there are jobs.  And there happen to be jobs in the United States.

Question: Will immigration-related problems work themselves out, or should they be tackled at a policy level?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, in the very long term it works itself out.  It goes away, and it goes away basically because one, as the US population ages increasingly, the United States will need more and more labor from Mexico, and as the Mexican economy modernizes and becomes more competitive, it will be able to create more and more jobs for Mexicans in the US.  So, we could easily see a situation 25 years from now where the US would be asking us to send them more people and where we would be saying, “No, we don’t want to send you more people because we need them.”  That is not at all an inconceivable situation 25 to 30 years from now.

In the interim, there's a real issue.  And so, what I’ve always suggested and fought for for many, many years now is that Mexico and the United States should adapt their laws to reality instead of trying to adapt reality to their laws.  Reality doesn’t follow through that simply.  The United States should legalize the workers who are here, the seven or so million Mexicans without documents, as well as the other six or seven million foreigners without papers, and it should create a migrant worker program to insure that those who keep coming, come legally and done create a new illegal universe of workers as happened after 1986. 

Whether the United States wants to also enhance border security, if it makes Americans feel comfortable, that fine.  But, it’s important recalling that what we’re referring to with border security has nothing to do with terrorism or any of that sort of threats.  It’s been now, soon, nine years since 9/11.  There are literally hundreds of millions of border crossings per year between the United States and Mexico, and over nine years there hasn’t been a single episode, a single incident, a single suspicion of an incident, of an episode.

So, there is no security threat to the United States from Mexico.  The United States knows this very well.  Mexico knows this very well.  But, if the United States wants to spend a lot of money to enhance border security, once it’s legalized the people that are in and once it’s created a worker program for others to come in, that’s fine.  I mean, that’s your money.

Question: How does Obama’s immigration policy compare to George W. Bush’s?

Jorge Castañeda:  Well, Bush actually had a very decent policy on immigration.  Probably the only issue he has a pretty decent policy on and the problem with it was his timing.  That he missed out on doing before 9/11.  Obviously he didn’t 9/11 was coming.  He then, I think, waited too long in 2003 and 2004 because of the war in Iraq.  And then finally in 2005 when he was re-elected and thought he could get it done later, he went for Social Security instead of immigration.  And he himself has now recognized, has acknowledged after leaving office that one of his biggest mistakes was not to have done immigration before when he could deliver the right wing Republican votes in favor of an amnesty program.  As once he became a lame duck he wasn’t able to deliver that.

Obama is in a similar situation.  What he is suggesting is great.  I don’t think anyone can argue with any of the points that President Obama has more or less set out in terms of what kind of immigration reform he would want.  The problem is the timing again.  If he doesn’t do it very soon in 2010, it will get in the way of the 2010 midterm elections and politicians don’t like that.  And then he’ll only have, like, a year in 2011 to get it done because then he’s got the presidential elections coming up in 2012.  So, he’s running very much into the same type of problem Bush had.  He’s got the right instincts, his heart is where it should be, his head is where it should be on this issue.  Everything is great.  The only problem - and he, by the way, he has the votes which maybe Bush didn’t have.  Obama has the votes.  What he doesn’t have yet is the timing, and I don’t know how long he’ll need to get this worked out.

Recorded on February 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen