State Dept. Policy: No Mexican Left Behind

By Jessica M. Vaughan on July 7, 2011

The recent New York Times article celebrating the supposed end of illegal Mexican migration to the United States offers little to inform a discussion of the illegal immigration problem, but does usefully illustrate the extent to which legal and illegal immigration feed off of one another. (See here for my colleague David North's take on the article.) And, the article also recounts yet another example of the Obama administration's policy of amnesty by abuse of executive authority, this time by the State Department.

Despite the improvements in Mexican living conditions described in the article (which some experts have questioned), legal immigration from that country continues to climb steadily. This suggests that the level of legal immigration has as much, if not more, to do with our open-ended green card admissions policies as it does with marginal changes in conditions in sending countries. Nearly half of all immigrants are admitted in categories that have no numerical limits, and these admissions have grown rapidly in the last decade. Overall, green cards issued in the unlimited categories – new spouses, the spouse's children, and parents of (often new) citizens – jumped 76 percent since 2000, as I reported in a paper earlier this year. The growth was boosted considerably by previous amnesties for illegal aliens, as the legalized residents sponsored family members, who in turn sponsored other family members, etc. These unlimited categories fuel chain migration and also contribute to serious labor market distortions and fiscal costs.

As if there is not yet enough migration from Mexico, under the Obama administration, senior State Department officials in Mexico apparently are stretching their consular authority in order to help large numbers of unqualified and/or ineligible applicants obtain visas. The State Department's admissionist bias is well known, but it is still startling to see such clueless arrogance appear in print. The Times article describes how Edward McKeon, the top consular official in Mexico, has proudly dismantled several safeguards that exist in visa law to prevent various types of immigration scofflaws from getting into the United States. First, he decided that consular officers should "de-emphasize" an applicant's economic situation when adjudicating visitor visas, since it costs only three pesos to cross into the United States (with a visa). Back to ConGen for you, Mr. McKeon – like it or not, the law says that visa officers are obliged to evaluate an applicant's likelihood of return to Mexico, not whether they can afford the trip. But by his standards, nearly everyone in Mexico would qualify, never mind the long tradition of illegal migration.

So as a result of this dubious re-interpretation of the law, now nearly every applicant in Mexico does qualify for a U.S. visa. The refusal rate for short-term visitor visas in Mexico has dropped from the already-generous 32 percent down to 11 percent. This puts Mexico's refusal rate on par with Belgium, Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia (well, that could be another problem!). This is not a small matter; visa overstayers represent 30 to 40 percent of all illegal immigrants, and the single largest source of overstayers is Mexico. Consular officers issue more than 1 million temporary visas to Mexicans each year, mostly in the form of Border Crossing Cards. Border inspectors do not authenticate the identity of BCC holders, unlike visitors from most of the rest of the world, so the cards are frequently abused by imposters; anyone can rent or borrow one from a storefront smuggling outfit or a relative. Since we have no functioning exit recording system, DHS has no way of knowing how many or who overstays or uses them as a de facto work permit or green card. The implications for homeland security and cross-border criminal activity are huge, but the State Department continues to operate as if the BCCs are some kind of entitlement program. For more on this problem, see an earlier blog of mine.

That's not all – to make a guestworker program "more attractive" for migrants and their employers to bypass U.S. workers, Mr. McKeon reportedly did away with a $100 visa fee for agricultural workers, apparently believing that this program should be subsidized by taxpayers. He intriguingly claims a "bias toward people who sweat at work" – but I guess not toward those millions of Americans who are sweating while looking for work.

Not only that, in his zeal to turn the consular section into an international social services agency, Mr. McKeon apparently has directed his staff to assist those who had been in the U.S. illegally to avoid the penalties that would otherwise ensue and thus return to the States on new temporary visas that they should not be eligible for; in other words, a kind of amnesty. According to the article, consular staff in Mexico now are filing ineligibility waiver applications on behalf of former illegal workers so they can return. These workers need a waiver because in 1996 Congress passed a law saying that those who live in the United States illegally and then depart are barred from receiving a new visa for either three or ten years, depending on how long they were here illegally. For more details, see my 2003 Backgrounder on the subject. (By the way, this bar is one of the reasons the waiting list for certain family green card visas has declined in recent years – a significant share of the applicants are illegal aliens.)

This waiver supposedly is available only to illegal aliens with a legal-resident spouse or parent who would suffer "extreme hardship" if separated. It is highly unlikely that large numbers of illegal Mexican farmworkers would be in that situation even though, according to the article, most of the 52,000 Mexican agricultural workers were able to qualify for re-entry on this basis. Perhaps someone in Congress should ask for an audit of these cases to make sure the law was properly applied, and focus on how the operating definition of "extreme hardship" has evolved in recent years. (It does fluctuate from officer to officer. For many years the waivers were adjudicated by a long-time USCIS civil servant who had an approval rate of 90 percent. When I visited our consulate in Ciudad Juarez two years ago, I learned that he had been replaced, the standards had been revisited, and the new guy was approving "only" 75 percent, much to the chagrin of the local immigration bar. Now the approval rate is reportedly back up to 85 percent; it would be interesting to know what has changed since then.)

No doubt the Times his article will be widely cited by open borders proponents as "evidence" that we no longer need immigration law enforcement or border security. Hopefully it also will spur a long overdue examination of the rationale, effects, and management of our immigrant and non-immigrant visa programs.

Topics: Mexico