A New Vision for US-Mexico Cooperation on Labor Mobility

September 12, 2016
Podcast with Former Mexican President Zedillo: How Can We Create Immigration Policy That Works?

Today we launch a detailed proposal for a new era of collaboration between the United States and Mexico: bilateral regulation of temporary, lawful labor mobility across the border. I join with a diverse, five-star group of experts from both countries—chaired by Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico and Carlos Gutierrez, the US Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush (as featured in the New York Times)—to say that it is time for a new vision of the shared future at our shared border. We offer specific ways to get there.

The movement of workers between the US and Mexico has been dominated by illegality for most of my life. Nobody in either country wanted this. The black market has killed many thousands of people. It has strained the resources of state and local governments. It has made families on both sides of the border deeply and justifiably frustrated with their elected officials. The creation of that black market was a historic tragedy. It was also unnecessary, and it is time for it to end.

We can do better—now, today. I worked with President Zedillo and Secretary Gutierrez to ask a diverse group of leaders precisely how the two countries could do better. This Working Group includes people from both sides of the political divide, in the US and in Mexico, with expertise in law enforcement, organized labor, business, economics, and the legal code of both countries. It includes a former head of US immigration enforcement, a former director of Mexico’s national security intelligence agency, and a former sector chief of the US Border Patrol. They come from left and right, north and south, labor and capital, theory and practice, public sector and private sector. Their objective was to find solutions that protect workers on both sides of the border and that benefit both countries.


A Shared Destiny

The United States and Mexico are neighbors with an inseparable shared geography, history, and economy. Few Americans realize that Mexican workers have built up the US economy alongside US workers since the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents: In many states like Kansas, Arizona, and Texas, the Mexican-born fraction of the labor force was much higher in 1930 than it was in 1990. Most were driven out during the Great Depression, their hard work largely forgotten.

Today, anyone in the US who has walked into newly-built homes or eaten cucumbers and melons is almost certain to have directly benefited from Mexicans’ hard work at some point. Mexican workers have quadrupled their productivity and earning power by working across the border, raising productivity all over the region and thus—my research has found—creating jobs for US workers. The skills and money they brought home to Mexico, both today and in the past, have raised productivity in the second-largest market for US exports. And many indirect benefits go unnoticed: Mexicans who arrived in the US for low-skill work have produced the likes of a leading neurosurgeon and an astronaut. Like a small number of US natives, a small number of Mexican immigrants commit crimes—but at much lower rates than US natives.

The two countries could have gained greatly by cooperating to shape these historic forces for mutual benefit. Instead they let their last agreement to jointly regulate labor flows expire at the end of 1964. What quickly followed was the largest wave of black-market labor mobility anywhere, ever, driven by vast economic and demographic forces.

In the half century since, again and again, a generation of advocates has dismissed any serious proposal to build and enforce a well-regulated labor market between these neighboring countries. The colossal black market and its many harms deserve to be seen largely as a consequence of that generation’s failed experiment in rigid, unilateral policy. Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform of 1986 focused on the status of people already in the United States, not the pragmatic regulation of new labor mobility—a critical flaw that soon made the reform futile. Just four years after what was billed as a once-and-for-all solution, there were more unauthorized workers in the US than before the reform.

What our Working Group has done is to set out a way forward that avoids the mistakes of the past. Far beyond stating principles, they have designed several policy tools that an effective agreement must include. Their proposal for cooperative regulation will remain the definitive one for a long time.

The group is quite aware of the profound flaws in the two countries’ prior efforts to cooperatively regulate labor mobility, the bracero agreements of 1942–1964, under which abuses of workers’ rights was much too frequent. Indeed, the group includes the son of a bracero worker. But the flaws in those agreements arose primarily from their poor design—and the disastrous effects of ceasing all cooperative regulation have been much worse. The group has proposed a series of mold-breaking innovations to design cooperative regulation of labor mobility for the 21st century.

New Tools for the Job

President Zedillo and Secretary Gutierrez, in their op-ed in the New York Times (Spanish version here), highlighted some of their proposed innovations:

These include a system of fees to ensure that it is in American employers’ interest to hire American workers first; a form of visa portability among employers that would protect the rights of both Mexican and United States workers; a safeguard cap to prevent unforeseen spikes in the number of workers crossing the border; and new incentives for worker training, return migration, and integration. It furthermore proposes a bilateral, comprehensive system to regulate the recruiters of Mexican labor—for the first time in a half-century—in order to uphold workers’ rights and the laws of both countries.

That is just a sample. Their many other innovations include proposing the creation of a much-needed Bilateral Labor Markets Commission, an independent source of technical advice on how to adjust regulation of US-Mexico labor mobility for the mutual benefit of workers and employers in both countries. The US has had such an agency to advise its regulation of international trade, the International Trade Commission, for a hundred years. It has nothing of the kind to guide the regulation of international labor movement.

I’m delighted to have been the lead author of the report on the Working Group’s findings, available in English and Spanish at The political rancor of this year has been a stark reminder of how fed up people are with the failed policies of the past 50 years, as well as a reminder of the counterproductive proposals that arise in the absence of a serious alternative. This group’s ideas are that alternative, and they are as serious as it gets. Have a look at their proposal and think through your own vision of two neighbors’ shared future.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.