Spotlight on the U.S.-Mexico Border

A viable plan on immigration tops the Bush-Fox agenda

Call it The Dos Amigos Show. On Sept. 5, George W. Bush will welcome Mexican President Vicente Fox to Washington for a two-day visit that promises to be a Texas-size extravaganza. Bush, who counts Fox as his best buddy among world leaders, aims to showcase their partnership and their two nations' growing interdependence. Fox will be showered with honors, from a celebrity-studded state dinner--Bush's first as host--to an appearance before a joint session of Congress.

Fox will take home lots more than snapshots full of smiles and a new pair of cowboy boots for his collection. The two leaders will announce a series of initiatives, including joint efforts to crack down on drug trafficking and money laundering, speeding the movement of goods across border bridges, and plans to cooperate on energy ventures. Bush will also reiterate support for allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roads.

The centerpiece of the visit, however, will be a new framework for regulating the surging tide of Mexican immigrants. Since 1970, the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. has swelled from around 800,000 to more than 8 million, half of them illegal. The influx is part of an immigration wave that has pushed America's foreign-born to 11.2% of the total population, up from 4.7% just 30 years ago. That's the highest level since 1930, when immigrants totaled about 12% of the population.

Clearly, the Bush Administration has been laying the groundwork for an easing of restrictions. "If you can make a living in America, and you can't find a job in Mexico, family values don't stop at the southern border," said Bush in a speech on Aug. 29. "People are coming to work to provide food for their families." Still, top aides have been haggling for months over how to handle the explosive issue of legalization for undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. Also on the table: a new guest-worker program that could let hundreds of thousands more Mexicans obtain temporary visas to work legally in the U.S., as well as Mexican cooperation in policing the border and cracking down on the illegal smuggling of immigrants into the U.S.

DIVIDED VOTERS. Even if Bush and Fox can broadly agree on the goals during the visit, it won't be easy to cut a deal in the months ahead. "This is an issue that is at least as complex as NAFTA," cautions Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. And formidable political hurdles loom. Already, Republican conservatives are fuming about even limited amnesty for illegal Mexicans, and polls show voters are divided. Many workers and labor unions oppose creating more temporary visas, fearing more pressure on wages and a class of workers with few rights. And if the U.S. economy tanks, support for immigration could evaporate.

Even so, the U.S. shift in Mexico policy is sure to kick off a heated nationwide debate about immigration. Suddenly, all aspects of U.S. policy seem up for grabs as lawmakers, scholars, regulators, immigrant-rights groups, and others weigh in. How many foreigners should be admitted legally? Should admission be based more on skills or family ties? How can the flow of illegals be curbed? Says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of Washington's Migration Policy Institute: "Every sacred component of the system is likely to come under question."

More visas may be just the first step. "The U.S.-Mexican negotiations are the start of a 21st century approach that views immigration not as a domestic law-enforcement issue but, like trade, as the subject of international negotiation," says Frank Sharry, executive director of National Immigration Forum, an immigration-advocacy group. In this scenario, a U.S.-Mexico deal could be a model for new pacts with Caribbean and Central American nations.

Farfetched? Perhaps, but a confluence of factors is pushing the U.S. to rethink immigration policy, especially with its southern neighbor. For the first time in decades, Washington is dealing with a legitimately elected Mexican president. Fox, a former top exec at Coca-Cola of Mexico and governor of Guanajuato state, is viewed as an honest, pragmatic leader determined to raise living standards at home, in part so Mexicans will be less likely to venture north. And Fox hopes to curry favor with Mexicans laboring in the U.S., who send home nearly $8 billion a year in remittances and may soon gain the right to vote in Mexican elections.

Bush, a former border-state governor, is attuned to Latin American issues far more than his predecessor, Bill Clinton. He'd also like to chalk up a foreign policy accomplishment. Domestic politics plays a big role, too. He and Republican leaders are eager for Hispanic votes. GOP strategist Scott W. Reed calls Latino voters a key "stepping stone" to electoral majority in 2004.

LABOR BOON? Meanwhile, a decade of strong economic growth in the U.S. has created a warmer climate for immigration. Economists have argued that immigrant labor helped fuel the boom and keep inflation low. And businesses struggling to find workers in a tight labor market view immigrants as a safety valve.

Despite the U.S. slump, for now at least, employers are still clamoring for low-wage Mexicans to work in restaurants, hotels, meatpacking plants, and construction. "If there were a way to get more workers from abroad legally, that would be great," says Becky Duckworth, general manager of Snowmass Club in Aspen, Colo. Keeping the resort fully staffed is a chronic headache, says Duckworth. About 20% of its 300 workers are foreign, many of them legal Mexican dishwashers and chambermaids.

Union leaders, who once viewed immigrants as a threat, now see a potential source of new members. Last year, the AFL-CIO even endorsed amnesty for illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Demographic trends are also adding to the pressure. The tide of newcomers is running at an all-time high. According to the Census Bureau, 9.1 million people immigrated legally in the 1990s, surpassing the 8.8 million who came in the first great migration of 1900-1910. Immigrants generated a third of labor-force growth in the 1990s, and some economists say the U.S. will need to absorb more foreigners at a steady pace as baby boomers retire.

But it's the tsunami of illegal immigration in particular--even with a beefed-up border patrol--that is calling into question the policy status quo. "The cold fact is that we have more undocumented immigrants today than we've ever had since we started counting," says Michael Fix, director of immigration studies at the Urban Institute. "It makes sense to rethink the policy."

Bush and Fox could hardly have picked a pricklier issue as their focus. A recent ABC News poll shows the American public divided over the idea of legal residency for illegal Mexican immigrants, with 43% in favor and 49% opposed. Some, such as Vincent DiMarco, a 29-year-old stock boy in an Atlanta sporting-goods store, worry about the competition for jobs. "Mexicans will work a lot harder, and a lot of the foremen are now Mexican, so they'll hire Mexicans." Others are less concerned. "There are so many jobs that most Americans don't want to do," says James McClough, a 34-year-old African American security guard in Los Angeles. "There are a lot of $7-an-hour jobs that people don't want because they already have two of them."

PARTY SPLIT. Still, opposition is high among many GOP conservatives. They will try to torpedo any legalization moves, which they view as rewarding lawbreakers. They also point to the wave of illegal immigration after the 1986 legalization as proof that amnesty would only tempt more Mexicans to sneak across the border. "There's not likely anything the Administration can do [in the way of amnesty] that will sit well with the base," says conservative fund-raiser Richard A. Viguerie.

A new temporary-visa program is also raising eyebrows among economists, who question the need just as the U.S. economy has slowed to a halt. "It doesn't make sense to increase the supply of labor at a time when demand [for labor] is starting to falter," says Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. Studies show that immigration has generally depressed wages 5% for the lowest-paid Americans.

The social costs of increased immigration would also be high. A bigger influx of Mexican immigrants, who tend to be relatively poor, will squeeze schools and hospitals just as the sluggish economy is shrinking state tax revenues. According to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes easier entry for low-skilled newcomers, 52.6% of Mexican immigrants lack health insurance, vs. 13.5% of U.S. natives.

Even if the Bush-Fox proposals are enacted, they won't stem the tide of illegal immigration, given Mexico's faltering economy and wage rates that are a tenth of those in the U.S. And it would take massive investment in regional development in Mexico to really make a dent, experts say. Ireland and Spain were able to stanch chronic flows of immigrants to other European nations only by shoring up their economies with hefty European Union subsidies.

Political support in the U.S. for such slugs of aid for Mexico is nil. Instead, Fox is hoping for bigger U.S. contributions to the dormant North American Development Bank, created by NAFTA in 1994 to help finance infrastructure and jobs in poor regions of Mexico. He's also using matching funds and other lures to persuade successful Mexican immigrants to invest back home.

It's a start. But the risk for Fox--and for Bush--is a backlash if the immigration initiative seems skimpy or if Washington fails to deliver. Moreover, because of the U.S. downturn, Mexico's gross domestic product will grow at 1% at best this year. If layoffs continue at export-oriented plants, more Mexicans will attempt the dangerous border crossing. That could weaken support in the U.S.

No doubt the political heat could get hotter than Texas in August. But if the Dos Amigos are serious about remaking U.S.-Mexican immigration policy, it's heat they're both going to have to face.

By Amy Borrus in Washington and Geri Smith in Mexico City, with bureau reports

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