Will Mexican Cartels Benefit From Immigration Reform?

"I think immigration reform could be highly beneficial to curb the general atmosphere of illegality that aids the cartels' operations," said Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, referring to the lack of legal oversight that permeates the lives of undocumented immigrants. "When you have 10 or 11 million undocumented workers who are not recognized by the law, this creates an environment of illegality that criminal organizations can exploit."

Crimes against undocumented immigrants are consistently underreported, in large part because victims don't trust the police or are fearful or being deported. Immigration reform would change that, and could lead to a large number of prosecutions if empowered victims step forward and report crimes to U.S. authorities, Longmire says.

"The one thing that could result from immigration reform is that people who are here illegally could be more forthcoming in reporting cartel activity to the police," Longmire said.

At the same time, though, the economic and social benefits that the bill contemplates could work against the bill's beneficiaries, according to George W. Grayson, an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Mexicans are the main targets of the Mexican cartels and quite possibly most cartel operatives in the U.S. are Mexican. Cartels have already followed the small exodus of Mexican nationals who have fled the country to escape the violence of the past years, Grayson says. In that sense, immigration reform could attract more criminal operatives by unwillingly establishing a vast an extortion market for groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas.

"If the immigration reform goes through," Grayson told ABC/Univision, "it will become more of a problem. That's not because undocumented immigrants are criminals, but because it will create a larger population of Mexicans that can be targets, or a larger population that can be employed by the cartels."

The levels of violence that Mexico has witnessed are still far away, however. In fact, Grayson's scenario could be overblown, according to other analysts.

The cartels operate in the U.S. following significantly different rules than they do in Mexico. While in south of the border they have established territorial control by buying off, threatening, and ultimately assuming control of local police, in the north they operate much more subtly, according to Grillo, taking care to avoid the gruesome murders that plague everyday life in Mexico.

Moreover, as Longmire points out, cartels have been hiring American gang members to avoid calling attention to themselves. In effect, 80 percent of Border Patrol drug busts involve American citizens, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"Cartels already have individuals here that are American citizens and are already working for them," Longmire said. Taking that into account, she added, "I don't think immigration will have too much of an impact. It will be business as usual regardless of what happens."

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