America’s Other Immigration Problem

The unfair Mexican laws that keep out Americans who want to move there.

Mexican flag in plaza, Mexico City.
A bilateral immigration policy between the United States and Mexico could bring the countries closer together

Jupiterimages/Getty Images.

This week’s U.S. Supreme Court argument about the constitutionality of the Arizona immigration law is a classic showdown on states’ rights. Arizona argues that it has the right to impose identification checks and other measures within its sovereign borders, while the federal government argues that immigration policy ought not to be patchwork. But immigration policy is not merely patchwork across U.S. states—with so-called immigration havens in New York and draconian laws in Arizona and Alabama—it is patchwork with respect to countries as well.


Many countries sending immigrants to the United States—and asking that America welcome those immigrants—themselves have policies that discourage Americans from moving there. This is a profound unfairness at the heart of our immigration policy, and one that almost no one acknowledges. The first step to domestic immigration reform may be overturning the restrictions that other nations, including Mexico, place on American immigration to their countries.

Mexico, while pressing for its citizens to work and conduct business in the United States, poses Kafka-esque obstacles to foreigners wanting to acquire legal residence and buy desirable property there. For instance, Article 27 of the Mexican constitution states: “Foreign citizens cannot own land within 100 km of the borders or 50 km of the sea; however, foreigners can have a beneficial interest in such land through a trust (fideicomiso), where the legal ownership of the land is held by a Mexican financial institution.” Of course Mexican immigrants to the United States can own land outright.

Hurdles to citizenship are higher in Europe than in the United States. For instance, Austria, Italy, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Spain require most applicants to have a decade of legal residency (PDF) before being able to naturalize, versus the five years or less required of those seeking to naturalize in the United States. Contrast the $2,500 fees for naturalization charged by Switzerland with the $680 application fee charged here .
Many other countries, including China, Egypt, and Haiti, make it tougher for children of U.S. citizens born there to become citizens than vice versa. Bilateral agreements for citizenship would be fair, mutually enhance the respective economies, and reduce the xenophobia and antagonisms between nation-states so linked.

Of course, most U.S. citizens would not want to emigrate to Mexico, a country where the average wage is about one-sixth of what it is here. But some Americans might and some do. Even with the current legal impediments to resettling, one estimate puts the number of Americans seeking to settle in Mexico at 1 million. Think retirees who depend only on their monthly Social Security checks. Or entrepreneurs who want lower taxes. Or poor families in Minnesota who might prefer the climate and lifestyle of Baja, or Alabamans seeking relief from tornadoes.

While a citizenship policy change may not mean an immediate queue of U.S.-Americans at the Mexican border, over the long term such a policy would chip away at parochialism and leave U.S. citizens, known for high rates of domestic migration, weighing a move to Miami against one to Cancun. This may seem unlikely, but who, during the early years of the Clinton administration would have predicted that more Americans would immigrate to Ireland in the next 15 years than Irish would immigrate to America? This tide to Dublin was driven by U.S. citizens of Irish descent favored by Irish citizenship laws. A policy shift that made it easy for Americans to become Mexican might prompt a similar flow.  

Most consequential would be the long-term effects from the mobility of Mexican natives, whose ability to move legally between the two countries would change Mexico’s demographics and investment patterns. More of its own citizens would remain or return, as occurred in the European Union when, for instance, Portugal and Greece joined: Greeks and Portuguese who had been residing in wealthier countries such as France came home to reap the benefits of the foreign investments the EU incentivized.  

The United States should sign bilateral treaties agreeing to naturalize citizens from other countries on the same terms as the partner countries naturalize Americans. The point is not that most Americans would pursue a tarjeta verde, but that just knowing this is possible would make Mexico and its citizens less alien.


Ultimately, a bilateral citizenship treaty with Mexico would further blend the two countries. It’s been almost two decades since salsa passed ketchup as the top condiment in the U.S.  Meanwhile, Coca Cola and Pepsi drinks dominate the Mexican beverage market. Eventually, Spanglish may become the primary spoken language in some parts of North America, a phenomenon that for many of course evokes fears of cultural extinction. We should not give into these collective fears but look at a map of North America from 1700 and recognize that today’s nations and nationalities are historical flukes: Spain, France, England, the Chickasaw and hundreds of other settled nations then prevalent in today’s borders no longer populate our landscape. Why raise a ruckus about keeping people out of a place that was not ours to begin with when instead we could be snorkeling in Cozumel?