I think one of the more powerful statements in The Other Side of Immigration comes in the first minutes of the film when a Mexican policymaker explains his view on illegal immigration. “The effect is migration,” he states. “But that’s not the real problem. The problem is the lack of opportunities in the Mexican countryside.”
This view of illegal immigration is quite different than the view often expressed in American policy debates. In much of the U.S. policy discourse, illegal immigration is conceptualized as a phenomenon that begins at the U.S.-Mexico border, and therefore something that should be managed primarily through border enforcement.
The alternative outlook expressed by the Mexican policymaker, on the other hand, conceptualizes illegal immigration as something that begins deep in the Mexican countryside years or decades before one ever finds him/herself attempting to cross the border. To this policymaker, illegal immigration is a symptom of much larger social, economic, and political problems.
So is there any way to address those larger problems and, in the process, reduce illegal immigration?
Pepsi, the multinational soft drink company, seems to think so. Last February, The New York Times reported in an article titled “For Pepsi, a Business Decision With Social Benefit” that Pepsi has recently begun buying corn directly from Mexican farmers at guaranteed prices. The guaranteed price is critical for a few reasons. First, a guarantee provides small farmers insurance against extreme market fluctuations. When you take the risk and instability out of farming, more people will be willing to do it. The result is less migration to the United States. The guarantee allows these farmers to secure loans from banks so they can make the upfront investment in fertilizer, seeds, and land. If more people can get loans, then more people can buy inputs, which means more people are out in the fields instead of migrating. Finally, Pepsi is providing an alternative to regional buyers who may only pay farmers half the market price. This means more income at harvest.
According to the Times report, the effect of Pepsi’s intervention in local Mexican economies has meant far less illegal migration to the United States. With opportunities to make a stable and profitable living in their hometown, in other words, people in the Mexican countryside will almost always choose to remain at home rather than migrate illegally to the U.S.
For all its faults and problems, the Mexican government has made strides in recent years in establishing a number of interesting and effective programs that provide new opportunities to its citizens. Unfortunately, these programs are often underfunded and do not reach even a fraction of those who could benefit; their nevertheless worth a discussion.
One particularly interesting social program is the Enterprising Rural Youth and Land Fund program (Joven Emprededor Rural y Fondo de Tierras). In brief, this program provides training to young people living in agricultural areas so that they may increase yields on their farmers and market their goods more effectively. The program may furthermore provide funding to groups of young people to buy land or build a greenhouse.
According to the Mexican policymaker who was running this program in the state of Michoacán at the time of my research, the outcome has been fewer unauthorized migration flows to the U.S. because Enterprising Rural Youth gives young people in Mexico the training and capital they need to be successful at home. Listen to his story in this video.
So if Pepsi and the Mexican government are onto anything with these initiatives, I’d say it’s important to examine three key areas:
Education. People need education and skills in order to support their families and communities. Education may also demonstrate to young people that migrating isn’t the only option.
Opportunities. People need some way to put their skills to use and earn money. Without labor opportunities, people will migrate.
Stability. The existence of work isn’t enough. People need some guarantee that their income will be consistent over time. If existing labor opportunities involve too much risk or people can’t count on a stable income, they become more likely to migrate. NOTE: In my own research, I’ve found that income instability and economic risk are often more compelling motivators to migrate than absolute poverty. See early theoretical work on this idea by Oded Stark and David Levhari, for example.