"Everyone understands that we need migrants, including the racist politicians who use them for campaign"
In dialogue with LPO, specialist in border issues Tony Payan explains that the US economy contradicts political discourse: "There are 10 million undocumented immigrants integrated into the labor market," he says.

 Tony Payan has been studying the southern border for years and knows like no one the logic that works in that universe in permanent expansion. The director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University says that everyone knows that migrants are necessary, including politicians who use them to campaign for elections. But he also provides data and says that people who come to the State of Texas spend 500 million dollars a year in taxes, more than what they use in state services.

Author of several books on the immigration issue and the war on drugs, until 2015 Payan was a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, and he still teaches at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, he explains who are the migrants that arrive and he argues that the US economy not only needs workers who come from other countries: it absorbs them in practice because the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have already entered the labor market.

What are the main causes that explain the migratory phenomenon?

Not all migrants decide to leave their homes for the same reasons. Some do it for financial reasons. In fact, most of them are looking for better economic opportunities, savings for their families or anything related to this topic, unemployment or poverty. Others do it for other reasons, such as security. In Mexico we are seeing that, because of this issue, many people are being expelled. Michoacanos, who would not have left their place before, are leaving today. Organized crime gives you three options: you work for me, you leave your house, your property and you leave, or we kill you. There are a lot of middle class families that are starting to migrate, as we see in Houston, and they are businessmen, businesswomen, highly educated families with jobs or skilled occupations in Mexico. They were called "brain drain". I think that term has been superseded. Today they are professionals looking for better possibilities. Engineers, doctors, professors who seek to incorporate new techniques in their professional or research field, etc. There is already a significant exodus of this kind of people, from Mexico and from all Latin American countries in general.

"Everyone understands that we need migrants, including the racist politicians who use them for campaign"

And there are also people who are displaced by climate change. We see it more now, and it is something that has not yet been well studied. I think that those who link migration with climate change have not yet done the work of discerning which are the causal mechanisms. That is, how do you know that a person is abandoning his plot, his ranch, his town, his land? Because of a drought, of poverty, or because there is the impact of climate change?

Michoacanos, who would not have left their place before, are leaving today. Organized crime gives you three options: you work for me, you leave your house, your property and you leave, or we kill you.

What happens when those migrants arrive in the United States?

Here the migrant is qualified and homogenized as a person who is being expelled from his or her country. The reason does not matter. In the US it becomes an immigration problem and that is a mistake. At this time, many migrants move from south to south, Venezuelans go to Colombia, Haitians to Brazil or Chile, but finally the gravitational pull is in the developed countries. It is in the US, Canada or Europe, because there is and answer to their problems of employment, freedom, security, and there they find possibilities to develop themselves professionally.

The migrant is very heterogeneous and leaves for many reasons, but ultimately he or she is a rational being and makes rational calculations. For example, a Venezuelan migrant is not going to stay in Mexico, where he or she quickly realizes that the system is closed, that undocumented foreigners have no opportunities and the labor market is tough. An economy with 60% informality is not a desirable country, he or she will be trapped in a limited economic system, security is not the best, they are quickly identified by their accent, etc. So a migrant passing through Mexico will eventually decide to go to the US, Canada or Europe.

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If the migrant were an irrational being or incapable of understanding where the opportunities are, then he or she would go anywhere. But this is not the case. Migration remains a south-north phenomenon. Even when looking at south-south migration, it is also about the type and quantity of possibilities. Venezuelans who face a political situation of collapsed governance and a collapsed economy migrate to Colombia, Peru, Argentina or Chile, but ultimately their destination is the US, because they know that the opportunities are there.

When speaking of the migratory phenomenon, the emphasis is usually on supply, that is, on those who are arriving in the United States. I would like you to help us think about the phenomenon from the demand side. Does America need immigrants? And if so, why?

In general, in the United States, this type of phenomenon is always thought based on supply and demand, as if it were an economic issue. However, most of the time public policy is supply-oriented. The emphasis is on the migrants, on the smugglers, on the coyotes who actively participate in migration, who are part of the framework of the migration organization, and obviously they are thinking of stopping them at the border... as happens with drugs. I have always said that when a phenomenon such as migration or drugs reach the border, it is already too late. The migrant has already left his house, transited, paid someone to bring him or her into the country, has already arrived at the border, and we already have that problem knocking on our door. Then we all think of a punitive issue aimed at stopping the supply.

In this regard, I tend to agree with other scholars who have already suggested in the past that migration on the US-Mexico border, at specific times of the year, "disappeared". What were those times? The investigations that took place during the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s determined that the Border Patrol disappears, they go to their barracks. When? When the harvest season begins. In other words, when the Mexican migrants came, they crossed the river without documents, they went to work in the fields of the United States and then they returned to their countries with some money.

"Everyone understands that we need migrants, including the racist politicians who use them for campaign"

Border Patrol handled these labor markets, but these were temporary markets. I think that it still exists nowadays, and it is not that migrants cannot get through. As a hypothesis, I wonder if the US labor market - where we had four million unemployed people but eleven million vacancies - is not allowing Venezuelans, Colombians, Haitians to enter with the idea of covering these vacancies. So here you are, in front of an immigration judge, and meanwhile you go to Miami, Boston, Philadelphia or Los Angeles and you start working, and it may take several months for the judge to rule on your situation. Perhaps there is a kind of design, not necessarily explicit, that prohibits migration and at the same time allows it.

The emphasis is on migrants, smugglers and coyotes that are part of the framework of the migration organization and they think of stopping them at the border. But when migration and drugs reach the border, it is already too late.

You suggest that on the one hand there is a political or electoral message that is very much against illegal migration, but on the other hand there is a kind of let it be, let them come because we need them. Is it so?

Well, we have approximately ten million seven hundred thousand undocumented immigrants. Three quarters of them work or are working in the informal market, for example parking lots or restaurants. They are practically day laborers who sell themselves each day. They take them, they paint rooms, they receive cash and disappear. In fact, most undocumented migrants are employed. The labor market has accommodated those almost eleven million undocumented migrants. There is work for them. Many people told that we could mitigate the lack of workers, especially in the post-pandemic, by legalizing those 10 million people to cover the vacancies. But I told them that they are already working. You cannot legalize them and assign them those vacancies because they already have a job. The pandemic caused many Americans to retire early, then they moved to rural areas and start other jobs. So there is a need of workers in the US now.

In fact, most undocumented migrants are employed. The labor market has accommodated those almost eleven million undocumented migrants.

Everybody understands, even the people who use migrants as a political instrument for their electoral purposes, that we need them. In a recent study we talk about state services and the taxes migrants pay to the state of Texas and for the services they use. Their contribution in taxes exceeds their consumption of state services by half a billion dollars. When I say services I mean the educational system, the prisons, the streets, all the services. Undocumented immigrants leave half a billion to the state of Texas: they are net contributors to the Texas tax system. In other words, they are not even a public charge: they produce wealth and they are taxpayers. And it is only in the tax part. And we are not talking about generating wealth from employment, in a restaurant, in construction, in gardening. This is evident to everyone, even racist politicians know that immigrants are an answer to many of their problems.

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How is this phenomenon seen from Mexico, and what policies are adopted to mitigate the exodus?

Mexico is in a state of negotiation and this is a very serious problem. At the beginning of his term, López Obrador promised that migrants would have a safe-conduct to be able to enter and leave Mexico. But what López Obrador did not anticipate was that Donald Trump would win. The two presidents took office almost at the same time. Even with previous agreements, such as the free trade agreement with the US and Canada, Trump threatened to increase tariffs on Mexico by 25%, 5% per month, if migration continued. López Obrador took it as a challenge and deployed the National Guard to the borders, both the southern one with Guatemala and the northern one with the US, to stop migration and begin expelling migrants. In other words, Mexico adopted Trump's position, thought of collaborating with the United States because Mexico is a migrant transfer zone. Until today, Mexico immigration policy is the immigration policy of the United States.

On the other hand, there is an alarming corruption in the National Migration Institute. There is an agreement with organized crime in the National Guard. These cells charge migrants to let them pass, to take them or guide them. The Mexican government is in denial about the level at which they participate, organized crime and the Mexican bureaucracies. Denial about their political stance on migration, which is US policy, in this case transmigration. The other element of denial we note is that the economy, the security, has deteriorated to the point where half of the migrants are Mexican. We are seeing that Mexican migration has been growing. Eight or seven years ago we talked about zero or negative Mexican migration: more Mexicans left. Today, half of the "encounters" are Mexican. Once again Mexico becomes a country that expels migrants. The situation is very complex due to the different variables of migrants.

"Everyone understands that we need migrants, including the racist politicians who use them for campaign"

What do you mean with "encounters"?

It is a misleading word used by the United States government to inflate the numbers. Quantity cannot be defined: we found him/her, we kick him/her out, he or she come back, we find him/her again, and so on. 20 or 34% of migrants are repeat offenders, people who try to enter once and again. The word encounter is used to refer both to an undocumented person who crosses the river and a person requesting asylum, for example a Venezuelan, which is also an encounter and yet he/she has the international right to request asylum. It is the homogenization that I mentioned before. It is a heterogeneity of causes for which people migrate, but for the US it is an encounter, and that translates into public discourse as "an illegal migrant."

In a recent study on migrants in the state of Texas the conclusion is clear: their contribution in taxes exceeds their consumption of state services by half a billion dollars.

You wrote a book on co-governance in the border issue and the public policies that must be adapted jointly by the two countries. What does this mean?

The book issued from this literature in Political Science, which is the governance of commons. When we have a common area, we must co-govern it for it to work well and be sustainable. That way we can all enjoy it, including future generations. If the border is a common space, it should be governed in common. The problems are common, the flows are common, the environment is common, the natural resources - for example the water in the subsoil, the water tables - the integrated labor markets, the families, the integral intimacy. There are many binational families that come from one side or the other. They are bilingual, they have a certain social intimacy, from married couples to entire families. There is also an international trade that deserves to pass an efficient way. Instead of having trucks waiting for days, as in April 2022, when it was decided to punish the borders by inspecting the trucks under the Texas regulations. Once the trucks passed customs, a second review was imposed and that practically paralyzed international trade, which is a public good.

There is an agreement with organized crime in the National Guard. These cells charge migrants to let them pass, to take them or guide them. The Mexican government is in denial about its position on migration, which is US policy.

A border that works well culturally, socially, economically has resources that are distributed equitably. Almost 15 million people live on the border, 7 million one hundred thousand on the US side and 7 million one hundred thousand on the Mexican side. These are the common spaces that should be governed with joint institutions.

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Is there a precedent in this regard?

There have been interesting attempts, such as the 1994 Treaty on water, but it is a treaty that does not include groundwater. There is an overexploitation, because if you have half on one side and half in the other, the water consumed on one side will be lacking on the other. Therefore both sides must agree on sustainable consumption. This treaty must be extended to subsoil waters. We must expand the infrastructure to make trade more efficient, cross-border social intimacy. The distribution of natural resources on the border must be made efficiently, labor markets must be integrated because labor in Mexico is cheaper. So, why not having a proper visa? That is why I say that there is a lack of institutions and the ones that exist are old, insufficient and do not respond to the current needs of the US and Mexico.

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