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Immigration reform: ‘Here we go again,’ Latin Americans say

Latin America's public reaction is muted. And possibly with good reason.

Mexico border fence 2013 01 29Enlarge
A girl in Nogales, Mexico speaks to relatives through the US-Mexico border fence. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico and LIMA, Peru — Excitement, or anxiety, is rising fast in the United States — depending on which side of the immigration debate you take the pulse.

Following yesterday’s bid by a bipartisan group of senators, President Barack Obama spoke today in Las Vegas about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, including “a pathway to earned citizenship” for undocumented immigrants.

But south of the border, where countless families rely on cash sent from relatives in the US, observers are guarding their expectations.

The Mexican media has carried prominent stories about the renewed US bipartisan support for immigration reform, public reaction has been muted so far. And possibly with good reason: Mexicans have watched such reform talk scuttled in the past. The need of millions of their countrymen to head north illegally has long been an embarrassment to many.

“We will work to improve the quality of life and opportunities in Mexico so that migration is a personal decision and not a necessity,” Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s recently elected president, promised last month, shortly after taking office.

Still, the current push for reform is perhaps the most encouraging for Mexico since early September 2001, when, on a tour of the US heartland, then-Mexican President Vicente Fox pushed hard for reforms that would create a North American labor market to match the free-trade agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Then-US President George Bush publicly supported at least partial reforms. And Fox's foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, confidently announced that Mexico was going for the "whole enchilada" in lobbying Washington for comprehensive reform.

But that momentum was killed by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center a few days after Fox's tour.

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For the past decade, the immigration issue has been dominated by the tightening of security along the US side of the border, the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants, and the evaporation of many thousands of jobs filled by migrants following the 2008 economic crisis.

“Obama seems to have the votes in the Senate for his reform,” Castaneda wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month, pointing out that Obama's likely proposals would match the “whole enchilada” he'd hoped for 12 years ago. “Nothing assures that the same will happen in the House of Representatives.”

Net illegal immigration out of Mexico dropped to zero last year, according to a Pew Research Center study. Consumed with gangland violence and emboldened by their country’s seemingly improved economic prospects, some Mexicans are viewing the immigration question less urgently today.

"We are next to a nation that generates nearly a fifth of the world's output, with 314 million inhabitants, and the only thing we want is that they legalize the Mexicans who have migrated?" prominent Mexican economist Jorge Suarez Velez told the newspaper Reforma recently. “This position reflects short-sighteness and closed-mindedness.”

At any rate, many analysts are aware of the wide gulf between US politicians’ stated intentions about immigration reform and what's possible to achieve politically.

“Obama seems to have the votes in the senate for his reform,” Castaneda wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month, pointing out that Obama's likely proposals would match the “whole enchilada” he'd hoped for 12 years ago. “Nothing assures that the same will happen in the House of Representatives.”

Deeper south

Many families across South America also will likely welcome an easier path to US citizenship.

An estimated 500,000 Peruvians and a similar number of Brazilians live in the US without papers.

Brazil, which has the second-largest economy in the Americas, after the US, also has its own extensive experience of receiving immigrants, legal and illegal.

The country implemented amnesties for immigrants in 1998 and 2009. In the latter case, an estimated 200,000 people, from countries as diverse as Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, China and Haiti, had their status in the South American giant formalized.

Even before its 2009 reform, illegal immigrants in Brazil had the same entitlements to public schools and health care as Brazilian citizens.

Dudley Althaus reported from Mexico City. Simeon Tegel reported from Lima, Peru.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/130129/immigration-reform-latin-america-mexico-brazil