Shared Border, Shared Future: A Blueprint for Regulating US-Mexico Labor Mobility

September 08, 2016

What is the challenge?

The last bilateral cooperation to regulate flows between the United States and Mexico ended in 1964. Since then, unauthorized migration has dramatically increased. Of Mexican-born individuals who arrived in the United States after 1990, 80 percent did not have legal authorization at the time they arrived.

The black market for labor has brought harm on both sides of the border. For the United States, which hosts approximately five million Mexican workers without legal status, the black market can reduce wages and erode working conditions for all workers in many sectors of the economy, because unauthorized workers receive little protection from labor laws and thus tend to bid down wages and working conditions. This reduces income tax revenue, hinders law enforcement, and raises the cost of healthcare—as people without legal status often recur to emergency rooms—among other harms. Unauthorized migrants from Mexico who overcome greater barriers to enter the United States remain there longer. For this reason, even well-intended surges of enforcement effort can perversely increase the stock of migrants in the United States who entered unlawfully, as well as funneling greater smuggling revenue to organized criminals,[i] increasing document fraud, and raising deaths at the border. The black market furthermore represents an important threat to the security of the United States, since it thrives on secrecy and anonymity for massive numbers of people entering and leaving the country.

For Mexico, the black market has brought frequent abuse and exploitation of its citizens, created large income streams for violent organized criminals, contributed to corruption of local officials, and tarnished the country’s global image. Most horribly, it has brought death: from 1998 to 2014, US Customs and Border Protection collected an average of 372 bodies each year in the Desert Southwest. Over time, the black market has eroded support for cooperation between two neighbors that need each other. The Shared Border, Shared Future working group sees the black market for labor, and its consequences, as a result of policy failures and a lack of bilateral cooperation. Thus, this working group was convened to assess a reasonable and rationale blueprint for a path forward for both countries.  

What is a possible solution? 

The Shared Border, Shared Future working group explored ways in which the two governments could achieve this bilateral cooperation objective with an agreement that addresses fee systems, visa portability, incentives for worker training, return, and integration, and more. The resulting report and model ‘term sheet’ provide an overview of what a bilateral agreement, regulating temporary and employment-based migration, could look like. To guide this work, the group operated under five principles about the shared future and shared responsibility of both countries: 
  1. Temporary mobility between Mexican and US territory is older than either country, and requires regulations tailored to that shared history and destiny.
  2. Labor mobility between the two countries can bring shared economic benefits
  3. Most recent labor mobility has been unlawful, which has harmed workers and national security in both countries.
  4. Despite the rising importance of other countries, cross-border flows of Mexican labor will continue.
  5. History teaches that flexible regulation and bilateral cooperation are the only lasting solution, but the flaws of past agreements show that proper design is a necessary ingredient. 

How did the group operate? 

The Center for Global Development (CGD) convened this working group from May 2015 – September 2016. Conceived by CGD Senior Fellow Michael Clemens, the working group was created to address a 50-year lapse in bilateral cooperation. The last cooperation on labor migration between the United States in Mexico ended in 1965, and since then unlawful migration from Mexico to the United States has dramatically increased. To help address this challenge, CGD brought together experts with a diverse array of expertise in business, economics, law, labor, policy, national security, and more. Together, the working group charted a rational, rigorous, and reasonable blueprint that could benefit both countries and their citizens. 
The group held two plenary meetings, one at CGD in Washington, DC on May 13, 2015, and a second in Mexico City on October 9, 2015. In addition, the working group convened a US subgroup and Mexico subgroup. Each held individual meetings prior to the October Mexico City meeting to discuss issues of specific importance to each country’s leaders, laws, regulations, etc. The CGD Secretariat complemented these meetings through individual consultations with influential thought leaders in the fields of immigration and bilateral cooperation. These combined efforts have resulted in this working group report, and we are extremely grateful for the time and commitment of all involved.  
Members were invited to participate in a strictly personal and volunteer capacity, not as representatives of their employers or organizations. The co-chairs and members have endorsed the report, though not all necessary agree with every statement and recommendation.

Who were the group members? 

Working Group Co-Chairs

Carlos Gutierrez, Albright Stonebridge Group, and Ernesto Zedillo, Yale University

Working Group Members

Edward Alden, Council on Foreign Relations
Daniel Chiquiar, Bank of Mexico
Luís Ernesto Derbez, University of the Americas, Puebla
Gerardo Esquivel, The College of Mexico
Tony Fratto, Hamilton Place Strategies
Katie Hays, Caterpillar Inc. 
Tamar Jacoby, ImmigrationWorks USA
Lynnette Jacquez, C. J. Lake LLC
Eliseo Medina, Service Employees International Union
Doris Meissner, Migration Policy Institute
Gustavo Mohar, Groupo Atalaya
Alejandro Poiré, Tecnológico de Monterrey
Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort
Silvestre Reyes, former chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Arturo Sarukhan, CMM
Joel Trachtman, The Fletcher School at Tufts University
Rebeca Vargas, US-Mexico Foundation

CGD Secretariat 

Michael Clemens, Center for Global Development and IZA Institute for the Study of Labor
Hannah Postel, Center for Global Development
Cynthia Rathinasamy, Center for Global Development
[i] Gathmann, “Effects of Enforcement on Illegal Markets.”