A virtual contradiction
between international migration
and human rights
Jorge A. Bustamante
Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)

población y desarrollo
36
Santiago, Chile, April 2003
This document —prepared with the financial support of the Inter-American
Development Bank (IBD)— was prepared by Mr. Jorge A. Bustamante,
Professor of the University of Notre Dame and El Colegio de México (Mexico),
and is a revised version of the document presented to the Hemispheric
Conference on International Migration: Human Rights and Trafficking in
Persons in the Americas (20 - 22 November, 2002) organized by Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in conjunction with
the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and with the colaboration of
the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization
of American States (OAS), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA),
the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the United Nations Childrens
Fund (UNICEF), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Latin
American Economic System (SELA).
The views expressed in this document, which has been reproduced without
formal editing, are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of
the Organization.
United Nations Publication
LC/L.1873-P
ISBN: 92-1-121399-1
IISSN printed version: 1680-8991
ISSN online version: 1680-9009
Copyright © United Nations, April 2003. All rights reserved
Sales N°: E.03.II.G.43
Printed in United Nations, Santiago, Chile
Applications for the right of reproducing this work are welcomed and should be sent to
the Secretary of the Publications Board, United Nations Headquarters, New York, N.Y.
10017, U.S.A. Member States and their governmental institutions may reproduce this
work without prior authorization, but are requested to mention the source and inform the
United Nations of such reproduction.
CEPAL - SERIE Población y desarrollo N° 36
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Contents
Abstract .................................................. ......................................5
I. Part one: The present........................................... ................. 7
II. Part two: The history........................................... .................. 9
III. Part three: A theoretical frame ......................................... 27
The dialectics of the vulnerability of international
migrants.......................................... ........................................... 27
References .................................................. ...................................31
Serie Población y desarrollo: issues published .................... 33
Tables
Table 1 Undocumented Mexican migrants that have worked
in the United States, by type of employment.
1988 - 2001 .................................................. ........................24
Graphs
Graph 1 Trends in the U.S. labor demand of undocumented
immigrants male from Mexico, D.F.
as they enter the U.S. through Tijuana.
1988-September 2001 .................................................. ........ 25
Graph 2 Dialectic of migrants vulnerability ...................................... 26
Maps
Map 1 Mexicans in the U.S.: a country of 24 million....................... 8
Map 2 Location of deaths of migrants in the Mexico-U.S.
border. 1995 .................................................. ....................... 15
Map 3 Location of deaths of migrants in the Mexico-U.S.
border. 1998 .................................................. ....................... 16
Map 4 Location of deaths of migrants in the Mexico-U.S.
border. 2001 .................................................. .......................16

CEPAL - SERIE Población y desarrollo N° 36
5
Abstract
If there is a geographical area that will be particularly affected
by the tragedy of September 11, that will be the international borders
of the United States. It is understandable that a country that enters in a
state of war after been attacked with enormous losses, reacts by
closing its international borders. Such immediate reaction has now
been substituted by a more strict control over everything that crosses
the border but, a fact remains, the border life is not going to be what it
used to before September 11. In the short run, everything that crosses
the border has slowed down by new controls. In the long run many
things will return to what it was before that Tuesday, but for a long
while, life at the border will not be the same.
An intense interaction of more than twelve million people from
the two sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have made us live in many
instances as if the border does not exist. This is the case among many
of us in the way we practice our family life. For the planning of
weddings, birthdays, reunions, ceremonies, the border is more virtual
than real. This is reversed as we get more serious in what it means to
the space where institutions, the laws and the governments reminds us
that there is a line that marks the beginning and the end of two
different nations.

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I. Part one: The present
One of the effects of what happened on September 11 is that we
border people have been confronted with an increase in the number of
instances where we are reminded that the border makes a difference.
Our own identities will be pressured to be conscious of which side of
the border we really belong to. We might continue to have a lot of
things in common with the people of the other side but we are bound
to be more frequently reminded that we are not the same at the two
sides of the border. The border might be changing from being
something that unites to something that divides. Perhaps that is the
nature of the concomitant relations between sovereignty and the
nation’s borders. It is understandable that a country which sovereignty
has been violated as viciously as it was that of the United States on
September 11, wants to make sure that its international borders are
protected regardless of how good the relations are with its neighboring
countries. Taking care of the integrity of the national sovereignty is
certainly not something that a country could delegate to a neighboring
country. This is similar to saying that there is nothing more internal or
domestic than taking care of one’s own borders. In this sense, an
international border cannot be the same during conditions of war than
during conditions of peace. Both, Mexico and Canada would have to
wait until the conditions of war declared by the president of the United
States are significantly modified, to see border life restored back to
normal. Time Magazine of June 11, 2002 (vol. 152. num. 23) had a
lengthy coverage about the border. The main thesis of that unusually
broad coverage was how promising the US-Mexico border region was
as a place of convergence of the best opportunities for economic
A virtual contradiction between international migration and human rights
8
growth that the process of globalization and trilateralization had brought to the three NAFTA
countries. Time Magazine writers of that issue portrayed a very optimistic scenario based on the
realities of a thriving process of integration of the three NAFTA economies, most particularly that
between Mexico and the United States and even more particularly at the border region we share.
That optimistic scenario was one of the many casualties of the terrorist attack.
Map 1
MEXICANS IN THE U.S.: A COUNTRY OF 24 MILLION
Source: Time Magazine, June 11, 2001 (vol. 152, N. 23)
Note: The boundaries and names shown on this map do not imply official endorsement or
acceptance by the United Nations.
From terrorist attack on, the border between United States and Mexico will be making more
difference in our lives than ever before. It is likely however, that this will not be something
permanent. A lot of new adjustments we, border people, will have to make as a different meaning
of the border emerges from the actual crisis. But vital needs will not change. We still have to eat;
we still have to provide for our families, we still have to seek the cooperation of our neighbors for
the common tasks that geography imposes on us, people of the two sides, such as a shared
environment. We still have to seek on the other side what we are lacking in ours. We will continue
to have things that the people of the other side still needs. We still have to barter and exchange and
share markets across the border. We still have to produce together the rules of the games we share.
Those vital needs that geography has made us share will become more concrete, more evident to
the people of the two sides. As the trauma of the terrorist attack allow us to see through the smoke
of what was left burning and the dust of what it was demolished. We have to learn how to be
patient until that happens. We, U.S. border neighbors, will need to be understanding and patient
with the measures of control that the United States will have to take to protect herself against
terrorism. The border makes us the closest foreigners to the United States. There are times when
this is an opportunity. There are also times when that is a challenge for good neighboring. Our
sense of solidarity with the American families who lost a loved one had to be followed by our
patience until they find the way to collect themselves to go on as a nation. The way we understand
each other on the two sides of the border will be followed by the rest of the two countries in the
way both will deal with each other. We need an effort to improve our mutual understanding of the
way we are because no matter how smart we are, we are not going to be able to change geography.
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II. Part two: The history
Let me now change gears to a more specific question of the
U.S.-Mexico border relations that will have an impact over all aspects
of the border life and of the bilateral relations in general. That is the
question of immigration of Mexicans to the United States.
I would like to start my reflections on the phenomenon of
Mexican migration to the United States with a historical perspective
about how is it that we are where we are on this theme and where it’s
likely that we will go from here.
Before September 11 it seemed like the governments of Mexico
and the United States were closer than ever before to an agreement on
the question of migration (The Economist). This raises a common
sense question, how come it has taken so long? It is only logical that a
bilateral agreement is the path to follow for a bilateral problem that is
caused by factors located at the two sides of the border.
I think that there has not been enough debate about this question
in Mexico. There is not enough historical awareness about certain
elements that have made such a rational option of a bilateral
agreement so difficult to reach by the two governments. It is certainly
not because such an option has escaped the minds of the leaders of the
two nations (Olloqui, 2001). I don’t think there is enough awareness in
Mexico of the extent to which certain laws pertaining to the legal
context of labor relations in the United States have been in the way. I
am referring, for instance, to the famous Wagner Labor Act of 1935.
A virtual contradiction between international migration and human rights
10
This law established the legal frame within which labor relations were to be conducted in the
United States, and the meaning was good news for the industrial workers but bad news for the farm
workers.
They were not included in the new legal frame under which labor rights were granted to
industrial workers. The important point is that such labor legislation excluded farm workers from
the legal definition of an “employee