United States lawmakers should consider public opinion south of the border
GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
PRINCETON, NJ -- The current immigration debate has produced much speculation about the effect of tougher immigration laws on the United States economy. Those in favor of greater restrictions argue that illegal immigrants benefit from free education, welfare, and healthcare services, in some states making those essential services less available to American taxpayers. There are also widespread concerns -- voiced by Colorado representative Tom Tancredo and others -- that the steady flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico to the United States leaves the border vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists. Tancredo has called for the construction of a 700-mile fence along the border, a measure incorporated into the immigration bill passed by the United States House of Representatives last December.
Others, including President Bush and the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who have turned out in the last two weeks to protest tougher immigration laws, emphasize the contribution of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. economy. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, unauthorized migrants make up about 5% of the U.S. labor force, including 24% of all workers employed in U.S. farming occupations, 17% in cleaning jobs, and 14% in construction. Pew also estimates that about 500,000 new migrants enter the U.S. illegally every year.
Amid all the rancor, there's another perspective that's critical for U.S. policy-makers to consider: That of the Mexican people. Gallup World Poll data from Mexico highlight the impact that cutting off migration to the U.S. would have on the Mexican economy. Thirty-two percent of Mexican respondents in the Dec. 2-15, 2005 poll claim to have relatives living abroad, and 15% of those say their households receive a monthly cash aid from such relatives. Those figures imply that about 5% of the Mexican households receive such aid every month. Cutting off such remittances would remove a critical source of income for about 20 million Mexicans, most of whom reside in poor and rural areas.
It may be difficult for many Mexicans not to take tough anti-immigration rhetoric personally, because they don't see the downside for the United States. World Poll data indicate majorities of Mexicans believe that migration benefits not only the home countries and the families of those who migrate, but the countries those migrants move to as well.
These data indicate that most Mexicans would agree with President Bush's view that immigration is not a zero-sum game. That is, Mexican migrants aren't boosting their home country's economy at the expense of American workers, but that the added stimulus benefits the U.S. economy even as it provides a critical source of income for the Mexican economy. Efforts to cut off that stimulus would seem spiteful to many Mexicans.
The Weight of Mexican Public Opinion
Why should the Mexican perspective matter to Americans? Because, as the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out, at a time when the United States needs allies around the globe, its relations with Latin American nations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Six of the most important countries in the region are currently led by left-leaning governments that are, at best, less cooperative than Washington would like.
Mexico is still by far the most important U.S. ally in the region, a signatory of the North American Free Trade Agreement that generally maintains friendly diplomatic relations with the United States. But according to World Poll data, just 33% of Mexicans say they approve of the leadership in their own country, while 57% disapprove. Twenty-four percent of Mexicans say they approve of leadership in the United States while 47% disapprove. With a presidential election approaching in July, Mexicans may be on the verge of making some big changes, not all of which may be favorable to U.S. interests.
Foreign policy analysts have observed that in the long term the United States cannot afford to see democracies continually stumble in Latin America and be replaced by unfriendly regimes. The United Nations Development Programme's recent Democracy in Latin America report describes a potentially dangerous decline in support for democracy among impoverished Latin Americans, a trend reflected in Gallup's World Poll data from Venezuela and Brazil. A sudden economic destabilization may produce a similar effect in Mexico. The resulting loss of freedom has the potential to not only worsen illegal immigration, but complicate it with hatred and violence among Mexicans, posing additional risks to America's homeland security.
Certainly, immigration reform is one of the toughest issues currently facing the U.S. government. But whatever strategy is adopted, policy makers should factor in the enormous implications for Mexico and other Latin American countries if the curtailing of democracy in the region is to be avoided and sustainable regional security is to be achieved.
These results are based on face-to-face interviews with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older who live permanently in Mexico, conducted Dec. 2-15, 2005. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.