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AILA Testimony on U.S.-Mexico Relations

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 02021659 (posted Feb. 16, 2002)"

Statement of Steven M. Ladik, President
American Immigration Lawyers Association

On Strengthening U.S./Mexican Relations: The Unfinished Agenda

Before the Committee on Foreign Relations
Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, Narcotics Affairs Subcommittee 

April 16, 2002
Washington, D.C.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Steven Ladik. I am honored to be here today representing the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). I am President of AILA, the immigration bar association of more than 7,800 attorneys who practice immigration law. Founded in 1946, the association is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and is affiliated with the American Bar Association (ABA). 

AILA takes a very broad view on immigration matters because our member attorneys represent tens of thousands of U.S. families who have applied for permanent residence for their spouses, children, and other close relatives to lawfully enter and reside in the United States. AILA members also represent thousands of U.S. businesses and industries that sponsor highly skilled foreign professionals seeking to enter the United States on a temporary basis or, having proved the unavailability of U.S. workers, on a permanent basis. Our members also represent asylum seekers, often on a pro bono basis, as well as athletes, entertainers, and foreign students. 


AILA appreciates this opportunity to express its views on strengthening U.S./Mexican relations and the unfinished agenda that the two nations face. I will focus my testimony on the immigration aspects of this unfinished agenda because immigration clearly is an important dimension of that agenda. Migration issues play a pivotal role in any discussion about the relations between these two neighbors. The United States and Mexico share a challenging history, a long common boundary, an important trading relationship reflected most recently by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has deepened the levels of economic integration and interdependence between the two countries, and the shared responsibility (along with Canada) of enhancing this hemisphere's security.

An agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on immigration matters will be groundbreaking for both countries. President Bush and Mexico's President Fox were working together to produce such an accord just prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Those attacks only reinforced the need for such an agreement. I come before you today to both express my hope that these discussions accelerate and produce an agreement and to review the potential benefits of such an accord. I feel most comfortable in my capacity as AILA's President to focus my testimony on the benefits to the U.S. of such an agreement. 

The mere existence of these discussions has revolutionized the immigration debate. Direct talks between our two countries have internationalized the issue of immigration and broadened the discussions in Washington, D.C. Much is now on the table for the first time to offer us an historic opportunity to fix what has been long-broken. Through these talks, the U.S. can achieve long-needed immigration reforms that contribute to our national security, reunify families, and respond to ongoing critical worker shortages.

Most agree that our current immigration system has failed in many ways and needs to be fixed. It has not been reformed in many years and reflects neither current nor future needs. Many have lost their lives at our borders, trying to cross into the U.S., smugglers are profiting from this trade in human lives, and precious resources are diverted from enhancing our national security because our government, instead of seeking out those who would do us harm, is rounding up people who are drawn here to fill our labor needs. Employers in several sectors currently are unable to obtain the workers they need, and as the economy continues to improve, other employers will experience worker shortages. Furthermore, families remain separated for years due to bureaucratic processing delays and long backlogs, and hard-working tax-paying people who contribute to our economy are undocumented and forced to live an underground existence. 

The United States needs to reform its immigration system to recognize the contributions that immigrants have made to this nation and their continued importance to our national well-being and to the enhancement of our security. These factors will only intensify as the U.S. continues to emerge from an economic slowdown and from the shadows of the September 11 terrorist attacks. President Bush views reforming our immigration policies as an opportunity rather than a problem and has put together high-level working groups in his Administration to develop a proposal with their Mexican counterparts. The President has pointed out that the "relationship between the United States and Mexico is very strong, is very important, and it's growing stronger every day." Senator Tom Daschle (D-ND) and Representative Dick Gephardt (D-MO), the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House, respectively, have emphasized that "fashioning strong relations with Mexico is vital to our national security," and have reiterated their strong support for "comprehensive immigration reform" and policies that "must reflect our core values of family unity, fundamental fairness and economic opportunity." 

The election of Mexico's President Fox has been essential in making these discussions possible. President Fox has made migration a priority on his government's agenda, has called Mexicans who have come to the U.S. "heroes," and has been a forceful partner in the ongoing discussions. He has shed the Mexican government's traditional hands-off approach to the issue. In fact, just prior to the attacks, the Mexican government put forth a new comprehensive proposal consisting of five components: an earned legalization program for hardworking people currently in the U.S.; an expanded permanent visa program; an enhanced temporary worker visa program; border control cooperation; and economic development in Mexican immigrant sending regions. These five components point the way to the comprehensive reform that is needed is this area, and should be the foundation upon which the continuation of the bilateral talks between our government and Mexico is built.


The U.S. immigration system needs to be reformed in a comprehensive manner to meet our security needs, to reflect accurately the close and growing economic ties between the U.S. and Mexico, and to help families to reunify. Most would agree that our current immigration system is out of sync with reality. In fact, the status quo is unacceptable, especially in a post-September 11 world in which enhanced security becomes a central priority along with the need to balance these security demands with the continued flow of people and goods that keeps our economy strong.

The Border Security and Visa Reform Bill, that we hope the Senate will soon pass, takes a first important step to change our immigration laws to help make us safer. But this bill, which includes urgently needed provisions, is by itself insufficient and needs to be fortified by the kind of comprehensive reforms the U.S./Mexico discussions can produce. These discussions offer us the opportunity to further align our immigration policies with our national security needs while recognizing market forces and family reunification goals.

It is our hope that President Bush and President Fox sign a migration accord that combines cooperation in enforcement and security with changes in U.S. immigration policy. Enforcement, security, and U.S. immigration policy reforms must proceed together because each needs the others to succeed. It is only through such comprehensive reform that we can change our immigration policies in ways that enhance our security and make legality the norm. The outline of such comprehensive reform would include:

  • A "smart border agreement" that would enhance the security of both nations and include joint enforcement efforts to reduce illegal immigration.
  • An increase in the number of temporary and permanent visas for workers and their families coming to the U.S. so that our legal immigration system, by more closely tracking economic needs and family dynamics, will be more easily and effectively enforced.
  • Earned legal status for hardworking immigrants already here so that these valued workers are properly documented, can participate fully in their communities, and are eventually made eligible for permanent residence and U.S. citizenship. 

Aspects of such comprehensive reform were highlighted in the groundbreaking report issued last year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico. In this report, a high-level panel composed of equal numbers of Mexican and American experts issued recommendations on U.S.-Mexico relations with respect to migration and border issues. The report proposes a "grand bargain" with the shared belief that "migration from Mexico to the United States should be (a) mutually beneficial; (b) safe, legal, orderly, and predictable; and (c) that, over the long term, it should naturally decrease and stabilize at moderate levels." 

Our immigration system needs to be reformed comprehensively so that legality is the norm, and immigration is legal, safe, orderly, and reflective of the needs of American families, businesses, and national security. Past efforts at reform were partially successful at best because they were not comprehensive. For example, the 1986 amnesty, while addressing one issue-legalizing the status of people already here-failed to address systemic problems such as the backlogs in family-based immigrant visas, and the absence of temporary and permanent business-based visa programs. We need to learn from our past, and advocate for comprehensive reform this time around.

A U.S./Mexico Immigration Agreement Will Help the U.S. Address National Security Concerns

Bilateral cooperation in enforcement initiatives that focus on illegal immigration, the opportunity for hardworking immigrants already here filling legitimate labor needs to earn legal status, a new temporary program for essential workers to fill identified labor needs, and more visas for workers and family members are initiatives that together will contribute to our security. Because our shared security needs create the additional impetus for Mexico and the U.S. to coordinate and cooperate, it follows that by encouraging and facilitating legal immigration, both countries will be able to focus their resources on terrorists and people engaged in smuggling, trafficking, and other criminal activities. 

Immigration reforms that legalize hard working people already here and that create a new temporary program also will help the U.S. government focus resources on enhancing security, not on detaining hard working people who come here to work or reunite with their close family members. In addition, reform that includes a new legalization program and a temporary worker program will encourage people to come out of the shadows and be scrutinized by our government. The legality that results from these initiatives will further contribute to our national security.

That cooperation with Mexico is central to enhancing our security is evident in the recent action plan signed by Presidents Bush and Fox. During President Bush's April trip to Mexico, he and President Fox finalized a 22-point "U.S.-Mexico Border Partnership Action Plan." This plan is a first step to reconcile post-September 11 security concerns with the need to keep commerce moving freely between the U.S. and its second largest trading partner. The "smart border" deal aims to facilitate the legitimate flow of people and commerce across our borders while screening out those who would threaten us. In a joint statement, Presidents Bush and Fox stated, "We will build a border that protects our societies against those who would do us harm, and that truly serves the human and economic needs of our dynamic relationship. We share a vision of a modern border that speeds the legitimate flow of people and commerce, and filters out all that threatens our safety and prosperity." 

Among other initiatives, the plan calls for the U.S. to pre-certify certain Mexican companies that would electronically seal their containers in Mexico and receive express treatment at the border. The plan also calls for a study of the possibility of creating express immigration lines at airports for people from the three NAFTA nations, and for Mexico and the U.S. to share information on those applying for visas to travel to either country. 

The two countries are also discussing: improved sharing of intelligence in order to thwart terrorists using Mexico to facilitate illegal entry into the U.S.; border crossing practices that facilitate and streamline the passage of legitimate people and cargo while identifying those that require more extensive screening; and intensified joint efforts to crack down on human trafficking. 

This type of bilateral effort to facilitate the safe and legal flow of people and commerce across our borders through the use of improved technology and international cooperation will aid us in our fight against crime and terrorism.

A U.S./Mexico Immigration Agreement Will Help the U.S. Address this Country's Economic Needs

Mexico is the U.S.' second largest trading partner (after Canada), with southern border communities a symbol of the interrelatedness of the two countries and economies. Since the passage of the NAFTA, levels of economic integration and interdependence have dramatically increased. However, this cooperation and coordination of capital, goods, and services stands in stark contrast to the massive enforcement efforts directed against employers and the legal restrictions faced by labor. The U.S. and Mexico cannot continue to be good partners on economic issues when a partnership does not exist on immigration issues. This contradiction is particularly harmful to the U.S. economy due to our nation's economic dependence on undocumented workers from Mexico and the demand for additional workers to meet labor shortages. 

Recent studies suggest that the current levels of undocumented migration from Mexico contribute somewhere between $154 billion to $220 billion to the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. Because these workers have become indispensable to the U.S. economy, it is vitally important that their status be legalized so they acquire the protections and rights that all workers in the U.S. should receive. Yet there are few opportunities for these workers to legalize their status. Current laws pose difficulties for employers as well. In my experience as a lawyer who practices in Texas, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) initiates work-site enforcement, U.S. employers, through no fault of their own, can lose 50 to 75 percent of their workforce. These employers usually are unable to replace these workers in a timely manner, getting no assistance from either the Texas Workforce Commission or the Dallas County Welfare Department. Finally, after about five months, employers are generally able to find employees to replace the ones they lost through INS enforcement efforts. In the meantime, however, assembly lines are shut down and businesses are incapacitated for months.

This is no way to run a world-class economy. We must find a way for employers to get the legal workers they need, and for workers to either legalize their status or have a legal means, on a temporary or permanent basis, to enter the U.S. to take jobs for which they are needed. Mexicans have been coming to the U.S. for more than a century to work in both agriculture and the service sector, and this flow will continue regardless of the laws that Congress does or does not pass. The U.S./Mexico discussions offer us the opportunity to legalize this flow of needed workers so that we treat them, not as second-class human beings, but with the full rights and protections of our laws and legal system to reflect their many contributions to our country and economy. 

It is important to understand that our country's need for these workers will only increase over time. Our labor market will demand even more workers because this nation is facing the prospect of dramatic labor shortages. Notwithstanding the now receding slowdown, the U.S. will be confronting shortages that result from demographic realities: our society is aging, with insufficient replacements due to low birth rates. European countries are already beginning to experience the negative consequences of such an equation. The U.S. will be next if we do not reform our immigration system. And Mexico is key to any successful reforms we are to undertake. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the U.S. will create 17 million new jobs by 2010, 58 percent of which will not require a four-year college degree. The service-producing sector will add 20.5 million jobs with a total projected increase in the labor force of 17 million. Meanwhile, the U.S. is not producing enough new workers to sustain such growth and our current workforce is aging. By 2010, the labor force ages 46-64 will have the fastest growth rate. More than 60 million current employees will likely retire over the next 30 years. Testifying before a House Subcommittee in 2000, Dr. Richard Judy of the Hudson Institute said, "After 2011, the year in which the first of the Baby Boomers turns 65, their flight to retirement will reach proportions so huge as, barring unforeseen increases in immigration and/or participation rates among the elderly, to reduce the total size of the nation's workforce."

The following are examples of sector-specific information on present and future labor needs provided by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), a coalition, of which AILA is a member, of businesses, trade associations, and other organizations from across the business spectrum concerned with the shortage of both skilled and less skilled ("essential worker") labor. 

From the American Health Care Association
On February 18, 2002, the New York Times reported that more than 90 percent of all nursing facilities do not have the number of staff necessary to provide good care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that nursing homes currently need 181,000 to 310,000 nurse aides (an entry-level position) to reach full staff levels. This number is expected to grow to over 800,000 by the year 2008, as more baby boomers need long-term care. Nursing homes have hired over 100,000 people from the welfare roles, wages are higher than in the service sector generally, and the facilities generally provide a training and certification course (paying wages while attendees take classes) to become a Certified Nurse Aide (CNA). 

From the American Hotel & Lodging Association
A recent report by the American Economics Group estimated current lodging industry employment at 1.9 million with projected growth to over 2.6 million in 2010, meaning that the industry will require more than 700,000 additional workers this decade. 

From the American Meat Institute
According to the BLS, the meat and poultry packing and processing industry employed more than 500,000 workers in 2000 (compared to 235,000 in 1975), and is projected by BLS to employ more than 540,000 workers, a 7.6 percent increase, by 2010. Most large meat and poultry packing plants are located in low-population, rural areas, which pose unique challenges to this labor-intensive industry. Not only does a labor shortage reduce productivity and efficiency in meat and poultry plants, it reduces capacity to buy and process poultry and livestock, hurting farmers as well.

From the Associated General Contractors
The December 2000 "Insights in Construction" Survey by AGC and Deloitte & Touche listed a shortage of skilled labor as the biggest challenge facing the construction industry over the next five years. The BLS recently estimated that more than 2 million workers will be needed in construction trades and related fields between 2000 and 2010 due to job growth and net replacements for retiring workers.

From the Building Service Contractors Association International
Current employment in building services is over 1 million, and has grown steadily in the last year. According to a survey by the Association, all responding members reported they expect to increase employment in the next year, and all reported difficulty filling vacant positions. These vacancies have resulted in curtailment of seeking additional service contracts and expansion plans. Notably, these shortages are affecting an industry that employs anywhere from 40 to 99 percent women and minorities.

From the National Association of Home Builders
Finding skilled workers has become increasingly difficult for homebuilders. Recent surveys of local homebuilder associations have consistently ranked labor availability as one of the most critical issues facing the industry. Other NAHB surveys have reported that the labor shortage has added 20 days to the time needed to build a single-family home, significantly adding to its cost. According to BLS, over 200,000 new workers are required by the industry each year to meet consumer demand for housing.

From the National Restaurant Association
Restaurants are the largest private-sector employer with over 11.3 million employees. By 2010 the industry expects to employ an additional 2 million workers. Labor shortages consistently poll among the top issues for restaurants/small business. According to the National Council of Chain Restaurants, workforce shortages, particularly in metropolitan areas, are among the most significant short and long term challenges to the industry.

From the National Roofing Contractors Association
The lack of qualified workers is the single biggest problem facing roofing contractors today. In a recent on-line survey of members, over 50 percent responded that they could hire up to five additional employees right now if qualified workers were available. The BLS projects an additional 50,000 roofers will be needed over the next decade to keep pace with demand. 

From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Workforce Preparation did a survey of local chambers of commerce in the summer of 2001. Ninety-nine percent of leading chamber of commerce CEOs reported workforce development as a priority issue among employers. Eighty percent of survey respondents listed a "shortage of workers/low unemployment" as a key workforce development issue in their community. For example, a representative from Chamber member Ingersoll-Rand, a multinational manufacturing company, testified in Congress in 2001 that one of its key workforce problems is finding workers for skilled trades, including welders, tool and die makers and skilled machinists, and that even though the company operates its own training facilities for these jobs, it cannot find enough applicants for the training.

All of these facts point to one simple reality: developing a fair and effective immigration system is essential to our economy. The current discussion between the U.S. and Mexico provide a rare opportunity to address this country's economic needs and build a stronger, brighter future.

A U.S./Mexico Immigration Agreement Will Help the U.S. Address the Urgent Need to Reunify Families: 

Through family-based immigration, a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident can sponsor his or her close family members for permanent residence. However, the numerical limitations on many visa categories for both family-based and employment-based immigration force families to wait many years before they can be reunited legally. The current caps are unrealistic and run contrary to policy promoting family unity (as well as make it difficult for U.S. employers to secure able and qualified workers). For example, adult unmarried children of U.S. citizens must wait four and a half years before they can receive a permanent visa. Mexicans are especially impacted. Mexican family members of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents in all of the visa categories must currently wait anywhere from 1-5 years longer than most other nationals for a visa to become available. 

The result is that families remain separated for many years, a situation that encourages illegality as families are forced to wait, sometimes for a decade, and during that period are not even allowed legal entrance into the U.S. as visitors.

Two possible approaches to ameliorating the family immigration backlogs should be considered. First, the U.S. should consider exempting both Mexico and Canada from the per-country limits. These limits impose an artificially low ceiling on family immigration from Mexico, and are out of synch with today's reality. In light of the increasing interdependence of North American economies, there is no reason to continue to limit Mexican immigration to the same per-country quota imposed on countries in other more distant parts of the world. 

Second, the U.S. should consider exempting Mexico and Canada from the family preference system numerical limits. Doing so would free up family preference numbers and would help alleviate the backlogs in these categories for all foreign nationals.

Comprehensive reform must support the reunification of families. Legalizing the status of hardworking people already in the U.S. and opening up channels for family-based immigration will help ensure an orderly process and legal flow and make legal that which in many cases has been illegal. 


To address our economic and security needs and to reunite families, any U.S./Mexico agreement needs to accomplish the following:

  • Develop a Regularization Program for People in the U.S. without Authorization: People who work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to the U.S. should be given the opportunity to obtain permanent residence. This legalization would stabilize the workforce of U.S. employers, encourage people to come out of the shadows to be scrutinized by our government, and allow immigrants to work and travel legally and be treated equally. Many have been here for years, are paying taxes, raising families (typically including U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident spouses and children), contributing to their communities and are essential to the industries within which they work. In order to unite families and keep them together, liberal and generous waivers must be made available for grounds of admissibility and deportability. It is neither in the best interests of the workers nor their employers for this situation to remain unaddressed. 

  • Create a New Temporary Worker Program: Current immigration laws do not meet the needs of our economy for short- and long-term employees in those sectors currently experiencing worker shortages and others that are expected to experience shortages when the economy rebounds. A new temporary program that includes full labor rights and protections would give workers the opportunity to work in areas of the country where they are needed and would give employers experiencing shortages the workforce they need. Current programs often have proven unusable by both employees and employers, and do not accommodate employers facing longer term, chronic labor shortages. The framework for a new temporary worker program must differ significantly from existing programs, and must respect both the labor needs of business as well as the rights of workers.

    The creation of a new temporary worker program would have many positive benefits for Mexico because it has the potential to allow for the flow back and forth of Mexican workers between the U.S. and their home communities. Currently, Mexican towns in immigrant sending regions are bereft of their working-age male members because border crossing is too dangerous. A visa program that allowed these workers to return to their homes would be of immense benefit to their families and communities, and would help the Mexican economy immensely. Such a program would parallel the one already that already exists with Canada under which future program participation is based on current year compliance.

  • Open Up Legal Channels for Family and Business-Based Immigration: Our immigration system has been characterized by long backlogs in family-based immigration and long delays in business-based immigration. Illegal immigration is a symptom of a system that fails to reunify families and address economic conditions in the U.S. and abroad. To ensure an orderly future process, it is critical to reduce bureaucratic obstacles and undue restrictions to permanent legal immigration. Developing an increased legal migration flow will make immigration more orderly and legal. It also will allow more people to reunite with their families and work legally in the U.S., and would facilitate fair, equitable, and efficient immigration law, policy, and processing. It is essential to make legal future immigration that otherwise will happen illegally.

  • Adequately Funding Immigration Reform Initiatives: Immigration reform must include adequate funding to implement reform. Congress frequently passes new immigration laws without including adequate funding. Lack of adequate funding has contributed to the long backlogs and ineffective, inefficient and unfair services that currently characterize the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Whether funds are directed to the INS or other entities to implement reform, any changes in the law must be accompanied by adequate funding, in the form of direct congressional appropriations.


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