The United States and Mexico have a rich, shared history. For more than a century, people have moved back and forth at the border to work. Their toil and industry could have taken place within a well-regulated and mutually beneficial labor market. But in recent years much of their labor has occurred in a vast black market — harming workers, families, security and public finances in both countries.
There is justifiable disappointment at this outcome. We have watched with frustration, from the highest levels of government on each side of the border, as two neighbors have wasted opportunities to help each other.
Our countries ceased cooperating to regulate labor migration in 1965. They understandably rejected the previous history of flawed “bracero” agreements adopted as early as 1942, which contained inadequate safeguards for workers from both countries. But rather than work to fix those flaws, they have since rejected any genuinely cooperative regulation of lower-skilled labor flows.
The sad result has been decades of rampant illegality. Today, by some reasonable estimates, of the 11.7 million Mexican-born individuals living in the United States, almost half (5.6 million) have no legal authorization. The root cause of this tragedy is that past governments did not jointly enact a well-regulated framework for new and lawful flows of labor.
There is a better way. We believe both countries must now arrive at a lasting, innovative and cooperative solution to reap the tremendous benefits of directing lawful and well-regulated labor migration into activities that complement and enhance the well-being and productive potential of American workers and their families. Think, for example, of the older Americans cared for by Mexican health workers, the American children raised in homes built strong and kept neat by Mexican workers — and the opportunities that this affords Mexican families for transforming their lives, as the ancestors of most American families once did as migrants.
It is possible to regulate these activities in ways that create new, better jobs for United States workers at all levels of education, foster investment and growth in both countries, and strengthen the enforcement of American and Mexican law. A well-regulated labor market can shape the flow of migrant labor to ensure that it complements rather than competes with United States workers. A black market cannot do that.
We propose a new bilateral agreement to regulate future flows of lower-skilled laborers between Mexico and the United States. This is the durable and pragmatic way to rid ourselves of the many ills of the black market, and is essential to strengthening the rule of law and national security in both countries.
Such an agreement requires innovation. Our countries need a mold-breaking agreement for the 21st century, not the faulty agreements of previous generations. For that reason, we asked a group of distinguished individuals from both countries, with a wide range of political views and expertise, to advise us on how the United States and Mexico could jointly regulate future, lower-skilled labor migration for the benefit of both countries. Their backgrounds in national security, labor unions, the law, business, diplomacy and economics helped inform what we consider to be a realistic plan for the future.
We have written a blueprint for a new era of cooperation, with 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. These fresh ideas can fundamentally change how we cooperate as neighbors — an immeasurable improvement over the failed unilateralism of the past half century and the ill-fated agreements that preceded it.
Some skeptics may say that the current level of political rancor will drown out our cooperative pragmatism. Our answer is that we have already waited too long for a lasting solution to illegal migration, and that our proposal is a practical, long-term way to uproot and replace the black market. Others might point out that net migration across the border fell greatly after the Great Recession. We note that those who are focusing on these small net flows conceal the sheer magnitude of the flows in both directions, which still require proper regulation; about 150,000 to 200,000 Mexicans cross the border each year heading north, and about as many head south.
We have tried unilateralism for two generations, and it has failed. There are well-thought-out alternatives, and neighbors have little choice but to work together. At our shared border, we can build a shared future.
Ernesto Zedillo, the president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, directs the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization. Carlos Gutierrez, the United States secretary of commerce from 2005 to 2009, is the chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global consulting firm. The two lead the Shared Border, Shared Future working group at the Center for Global Development. Its report is available at http://www.cgdev.org/publication/sharedfuture.