Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Mexico’s own immigration debate

1:49 p.m., Nov. 17, 2012

MEXICO CITY — If you think the debate over immigration from Mexico into the United States is complicated, just take a trip south of the border and look at it from that side.

Complicated isn’t the half of it. The immigration debate is also dishonest and hypocritical and filled with people who would rather pursue their own interests than solve the problem. And it all revolves around a broken system that stays broken because important and powerful interests want it that way.

Mexico is just as reluctant as the United States to confront the larger issue of migration – both of its own people north to the United States and along its own southern border, where Central and South Americans want to get into a country that many natives are desperate to flee. Nor does the Mexican elite want to swallow its pride and admit that the real engine behind the Mexican economy isn’t people like them but Mexicans who don’t even live in Mexico anymore – immigrant workers in the United States.

In Mexico City, politicians, journalists and intellectuals are eager to avoid the issue altogether. They point out that migration to the United States from Mexico has slowed to a trickle. With a U.S. economy that is sluggish and a Mexican one that is bouncing back, many would-be migrants find that going north isn’t worth the trouble.

The part about the trickle is true enough. Take it from Princeton professor Douglas S. Massey, an expert on Mexico, whose research shows that net migration between the two countries has fallen to its lowest level since the 1950s.

But things change, and migration is unpredictable. When the U.S. economy improves, and if the Mexican one falters, the flow of illegal immigrants is likely to increase.

Mexico is a permanent fixture of the immigration debate in the United States, whether Americans like it or not. It is no secret that this country is responsible for most of the migration into the United States – both legal and illegal. By some estimates, Mexicans account for as many as six out of 10 unauthorized immigrants in the United States.

Better make that partly responsible. It’s also well-known that Mexico has a co-conspirator: U.S. employers. These folks often prefer to hire Mexican laborers over American counterparts. And not because the foreigners work for lower wages but because they tend to have more of a work ethic and less sense of entitlement.

The way that many Americans see it, Mexico gave up the right to comment on how the United States treats immigrants when it failed to provide opportunities for its own people so they had to look elsewhere.

Not that the Mexican people, or their leaders, are likely to keep quiet. When the immigration debate starts up again in Congress, as is likely to happen in the next few months, we can expect Mexicans to put in their two cents.

With a full 5 percent of its population living north of the Rio Grande, and countless Mexican families feeling the strain that comes from having parents separated from their children, Mexico can’t afford not to defend the expatriates. The catch? If it comes off as too aggressive, its advocacy could backfire – and hurt the very people it wants to help by hardening the views of Americans.

For much of the 20th century, when it came to migration, Mexico had a good thing. It got rid of millions of people that its economy didn’t have room for, and then those people went on to send home remittances that today total more than $20 billion annually.

Now it’s time for Mexico to develop a 21st-century approach. This includes acknowledging the enormous contribution that Mexicans living abroad make to the motherland, and working diligently to provide them better services through Mexican consulates across the United States.

But it also involves not lecturing a neighbor about how to treat people that you’ve expelled.

Navarrette is a Carlsbad-based columnist syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is