Frontline World

MEXICO - A Death in the Desert, June 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A Death in the Desert"

A Desperate Journey

In-depth Analysis

Background, Illlegal Migration, Immigration Reform

Immigration Legislation, Views on NAFTA




Images of Mexican landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

This page was updated June 27, 2006.

General Background
Illegal Migration
Immigration Reform
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

General Background

Mexico is located in North America, between the United States to the north and the Central American countries of Belize and Guatemala to the south. It is approximately three times the size of Texas, with a total landmass of 1,972,550 square miles.

Mexico is the birthplace of the Aztec civilization, which ruled Mexico from the 12th century until the beginning of the 16th century. Spain conquered the Aztecs in 1521, subjecting Mexico to Spanish colonial rule for 300 years.

Mexico fought for and achieved its independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821. It became a republic in 1824, and its history since then has been defined largely by its border relations with the United States. In 1835, U.S. settlers in Texas, which then belonged to Mexico, declared their independence. In 1848, following the Mexican War, Arizona, New Mexico and California as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada came under U.S. control.

The Mexican Revolution, an armed uprising by peasants and urban workers that lasted a decade, from 1910 until 1920, dramatically changed the political and social landscape of Mexico, initiating its foray into modern democracy. The war also sent nearly a million Mexicans fleeing north to the United States, setting into motion a pattern of migration that continues today.

Mexico City is the political, cultural and industrial capital of Mexico. It is the oldest city in North America, situated on top of the former capital of the Aztec kingdom, TenochtitlŠn, which was built in 1325. With an estimated population of 18 million, Mexico City is the world's third-largest city, after Tokyo, Japan, and S„o Paulo, Brazil.

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Mexico's population in 2006 is 107,449,525. It is estimated that nearly 10 percent of this total, or 10 million people, are undocumented migrants living in the United States.

By ethnicity, Mexicans are 60 percent Mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish), 30 percent Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian, 9 percent white, and 1 percent other.

By religion, Mexicans are 89 percent Roman Catholic, 6 percent Protestant and 5 percent other.

Spanish is the official language of Mexico, although various indigenous languages, such as Mayan and Nahuatl, are also spoken.

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Mexico is a democratic federal republic. The president, who is elected by popular vote to a six-year term, is both the chief of state and the head of the government. The legislative branch is the bicameral National Congress, consisting of the Senate, with 128 seats, and the Chamber of Deputies, with 500 seats.

The current president of Mexico is Vicente Fox. His term ends this year, and Mexicans will elect a new president on July 2, 2006. The two candidates leading in the polls are Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Felipe Calderón.

Calderón, a career politician and member of the current conservative ruling party in Mexico, has made jobs and economic stability the cornerstone of his campaign. He has promised if elected to strike an agreement with the United States that would grant U.S. legal status to Mexicans who have lived illegally in the States for five years.

López Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, is the leftist candidate. His policy on Mexican migration is to push for an immigration accord with the United States and create better jobs at home so Mexicans won't have to leave. He also promises to convert the 45 Mexican consulates in the United States into branches of the Mexican Attorney General's office so that they can help battle discrimination against Mexicans in the United States.

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Mexico has the ninth-largest economy in the world. Its main industries are food and beverages, tobacco, chemicals, iron and steel, petroleum, clothing, motor vehicles, consumer durables, and tourism. It is a major exporter of silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cotton, and oil and oil products.

Mexico produces approximately 3.5 million barrels of oil a day and is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter. Sales from oil account for nearly a third of all government revenue.

Remittances from Mexican immigrants in the United States to their families back home are a major source of income in Mexico, second only to oil, surpassing even the tourism industry. Remittances in 2005 totaled $20 billion.

Mexico's labor force comprises 20 percent agricultural workers, 24 percent industrial workers and 56 percent service workers. Agriculture accounts for 5 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product, industry 26 percent and services 69 percent. Income distribution is highly inequitable - approximately 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Mexico's main trading partner is the United States at 82.7 percent; Canada is second at 5.4 percent. Mexico also negotiated free trade agreements with Costa Rica in 1995, with Nicaragua in 1998, and with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in 2000.

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Illegal Migration

The average daily wage in Mexico is approximately US$7. In the United States, undocumented workers make an average of 10 times more, or US$70.

There are an estimated 8 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. This is more than double the 1994 figure. Approximately 5 million are from Mexico.

The number of immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican border so far in 2006 is up 4 percent from this time in 2005. To date, there have been 826,109 apprehensions along the Mexican border in the first half of 2006 - almost as many as were apprehended in all of 2003.

A record 460 migrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border during the last fiscal year (October 1, 2004, through September 29, 2005), compared with approximately 50 in 1995.

Arizona is considered the most treacherous place to cross, but it is increasingly favored because it is remote and difficult to patrol. In 2005, the bodies of about 127 migrants were found in the Tucson area.

With more than 11,000 agents and a budget of $1.4 billion, the U.S. Border Patrol has never been larger or better funded.

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Immigration Reform

President Bush has made immigration reform a major issue during his presidency. Since he took office in 2000, border-security funding has increased 66 percent. By the time he leaves office in 2008, the number of Border Patrol agents will have doubled.

In the spring of 2006, President Bush launched an aggressive campaign to crack down on illegal border crossings. He proposed the construction of security fences, barriers and high-tech detection devices along the U.S.-Mexican border.

In June 2006, President Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border to assist Border Patrol agents with surveillance, intelligence and construction. Congress's support for this tactic is split. Conservatives praise the move to fortify borders with National Guard troops as a much-needed shot in the arm. Liberals argue that the National Guard is spread too thin already due to deployments of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Mexican president Vicente Fox also opposes the installation of the National Guard, saying the move comes dangerously close to militarizing the border. Some critics warn that the presence of National Guard troops might encourage Mexicans to elect an anti-American president in the upcoming July election.

President Bush also promised to end "catch and release" along the Mexican border. The term refers to the process in which Border Patrol agents detain suspected illegal, non-Mexican immigrants (primarily from Central America), issue them a notice to appear in court, then release the detainees due to insufficient facilities. In 2001, the catch-and-release rate for non-Mexican immigrants was 42 percent; in 2005, that rate had risen to almost 70 percent. Because this policy equated to an amnesty of sorts for non-Mexican immigrants, many Mexican immigrants crossing the border have recently begun claiming a Central American nationality to avoid being returned home.

While putting extra resources into tightening the U.S. border, President Bush also recognizes that a guest worker program is needed. He said such a program must act as a middle ground between giving all illegal immigrants automatic citizenship and deporting them. Legislation is currently being debated that would allow immigrants living in the United States illegally to begin the path toward legal status and citizenship. The program would require illegal immigrants to work in the United States for a number of years, pay fines, undergo a background check and learn English.

The guest worker plan has intensified the debate between those who want more stringent controls over immigration and those who support the contribution that undocumented workers make to the U.S. economy.

Critics of the proposal say it amounts to amnesty for illegal workers and rewards people who have broken the law. They argue that it will threaten the American middle class by taking away jobs and lowering wages.

President Bush and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argue that foreign workers are willing to fill millions of jobs shunned by American workers and that the U.S. economy would shut down without the contribution of undocumented workers.

Industries dependent on immigrant labor - such as the hotel, restaurant, agriculture and construction industries - have voiced strong support for the president's guest worker program.

Immigrant advocacy groups have criticized Bush's plan, saying it does not provide undocumented workers with an opportunity to secure legal status. They say the plan benefits employers, but offers little to the workers themselves.

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North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

Mexico's economy has undergone dramatic change in the last decade because of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994 by the United States, Mexico and Canada. NAFTA was born when American companies opted to move jobs to Mexico, where the cost of labor is a tenth of what it is in the United States. Proponents of NAFTA argued that it would spawn thousands of new jobs in Mexico and help modernize the Mexican economy.

Under NAFTA, Mexico's maquiladora ("bonded assembly plant") industry, which assembles goods for exports, added 3,655 new factories in seven years. Trade with the United States and Canada has tripled. Exports have grown from $52 billion in 1994 to $161 billion today. Mexico's per-capita annual income rose 24 percent, to approximately US$4,000.

Experts argue that bureaucratic gridlock, lack of political will and pervasive corruption have prevented much of the wealth generated in Mexico by NAFTA from being allocated to infrastructure, education and industrial innovation.

The official unemployment rate in Mexico at the end of 2005 was 3.6 percent. The country's official "underemployment rate" - a measure the government uses to denote employees earning less than minimum wage or working less than 35 hours a week - rose to roughly 25 percent in 2005, up from 9 percent in 2003. This statistic does not take into account figures for workers in the informal sector, such as street vendors and day laborers, believed to total 10 million people. Some sources suggest that as much as half of Mexico's workforce is unemployed or working informally.

The NAFTA-driven influx of imports has put thousands of Mexican companies out of business. Meanwhile, many American companies have begun to move their assembly operations to China, where the cost of labor is even cheaper than in Mexico. As a consequence, employment in the maquiladora industry is down 20 percent from its peak in October 2000, when 1.3 million workers were employed.

NAFTA has had a significantly adverse effect on Mexico's farming industry. Small farmers have been virtually wiped out by an influx of subsidized U.S. food imports. Business Week reports that 1.3 million Mexican farm jobs have been lost since the signing of NAFTA.

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Sources: PBS; BBC; Business Week; Bloomberg News; Latinnews Daily; The New York Times; San Francisco Chronicle; MSNBC News; The Gazette (Montreal); Encyclopedia Britannica online; CIA World Factbook; The Washington Post; USA Today; Los Angeles Times; Chicago Tribune; CNN; U.S. Department of State; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; White House.