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1 Chapter 1 Ghost in the Machine: Interventions in the MexicoU .S. Immigration System I f one does not understand how a complicated piece of machinery works, one should not try to fix it. Without a clear picture of how a mechanical system functions, what its basic principles are, and how its various parts interconnect to influence one another, one is unlikely to be able to restore the machinery to health if it is not working well, or to modify it effectively if a different outcome is desired. Without a clear conception of how the various moving parts of the machine fit together to function as an integrated whole, one cannot readily predict how a change introduced into one part of the system will influence other parts to alter operations and affect outcomes. Blindly tinkering with a gear here or a cog there, or adding new levers and springs simply because they “look good,” is to invite a host of unintended consequences, and perhaps to cause a calamity that no one expected or desired. Gumming up the Works In a very real way, the Mexico-U.S. migration system functioned as a complicated piece of machinery in the years from 1965 through 1986. It was composed of a set of delicately balanced social and economic processes that had emerged gradually over many years in response to specific changes in the political economies of Mexico and the United States. Cross-border population movements had a characteristic form, and over time they acquired a relatively stable structure and a welldefined geographic organization. Migration between Mexico and the United States followed predictable paths in accordance with wellestablished scientific principles. 2 Beyond Smoke and Mirrors Once one appreciates the workings of a complicated piece of socioeconomic machinery, then it is theoretically possible to intervene at various points to influence outcomes and improve results. However, if one intervenes in arbitrary ways and for reasons that are largely disconnected from the system’s actual operation, then one should not expect much of an improvement. Just as it is not advisable to take a wrench to a precision clock if one is not a qualified clockmaker, it is not wise to pull policy levers if one has no real conception of how the underlying system functions. Yet this is exactly what happened beginning in 1986, when the U.S. Congress and successive presidents presided over a series of legislative and bureaucratic changes that fundamentally changed the rules under which the Mexico-U.S. migration system operated. These changes were enacted largely for symbolic political purposes in the United States, with little concern for the underlying realities of migration and North American economic integration. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) ushered in a new era of restrictive immigration policies and repressive border controls that transformed what had been a well-functioning, predictable system into a noisy, clunking, dysfunctional machine that generated a host of unanticipated outcomes that were in neither country’s interests. These errors were compounded by additional legislation passed in 1990 and 1996 that reduced Mexican access to legal visas, militarized key sectors of the Mexico-U.S. border, and penalized legal but noncitizen immigrants . The arbitrary intervention of U.S. policymakers into one of North America’s crucial socioeconomic systems would have been bad enough by itself, but at the same time, in another policy arena, U.S. officials were moving in a diametrically opposed direction. Even as they sought to restrict the movement of workers across the MexicoU .S. border, U.S. authorities were constructing a framework to integrate North American markets to facilitate the cross-border movement of goods, capital, commodities, and information, a vision that became reality with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The apparent contradiction of simultaneously promoting integration while insisting on separation does not seem to have troubled either Congress or Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. These contradictory policies did not succeed in slowing down either documented or undocumented migration from Mexico; if anything , they encouraged more of both. They did, however, create a black labor market for Mexican labor, lower the wages of legal U.S. residents, increase U.S. income inequality, and worsen conditions in Ghost in the Machine 3 U.S. labor markets. At the same time they pushed migrants decisively away from seasonal, circular migration toward permanent settlement and transformed Mexican immigration from a regional phenomenon affecting a handful of U.S. states into a broad...


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