The ground had barely stopped shaking in Mexico when the debate began over the earthquake's effect on the country's political and financial future.
Pessimists warned that the temblors could mark the beginning of the end for Mexico's top-heavy government, just as the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake began the political upheavals that led to the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship seven years later. That is a possibility, especially if the endemic corruption of the Mexican system frustrates efforts to help the quake victims, as happened in Nicaragua.
But something good may come from this disaster, too, if the U.S. government, looking at the multibillion-dollar estimates of what it will cost Mexico to restore many thousands of jobs and homes, backs away from its pursuit of a restrictionist immigration policy.
In a painful coincidence, the day before the first earthquake hit, the U.S. Senate passed the latest immigration bill by Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), which could have a severe long-term impact on Mexico. Its main provision--penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens--could dry up the jobs held by migrants from Mexico and eliminate a vitally necessary source of that country's income. A similar bill, authored by Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.), is pending in the House.
Provisions in the Simpson bill would allow Mexicans and other foreigners to enter this country to work--but only temporarily, and only in agriculture. An amendment by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) would limit the "guest worker" allowance to 350,000 to harvest perishable crops.
Simpson and other restrictionists want to get the Wilson amendment out of the immigration bill. So do many Latinos and labor leaders who liken it to the discredited bracero program of the 1940s. But they all might take a more relaxed view of guest-worker proposals if they would focus on some recent studies which suggest that illegal immigration is not as big a problem as many of us think.
Last year, for example, the Census Bureau concluded that Immigration and Naturalization Service's estimates of 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in this country--the infamous "silent invasion"--were wildly overblown. The census agency's research put the number at about 2 million. Another recent study, by the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that a "reasonable" estimate was between 1.5 million and 3.5 million.
Then there is the recent study by the Urban Institute, which looked at the impact of Mexican workers on Southern California. It concluded that they are beneficial to the region. They help keep marginal industries viable and inflationary pressures down, and they do not have any appreciable effect on unemployment, even among minorities.
If political leaders would only accept these calm assessments of the immigration issue, they could stop looking at the movement of people between this country and Mexico as a problem. Then they could abandon the search for quick-fix "solutions"--whether they are unwieldy bills like Simpson's or immigration raids, like those carried out by INS last week in Orange County, which terrorize Latino communities to no useful end.
The migration of Mexican workers to this country is a historic phenomenon that won't end so long as our native-born population declines while our fields and factories need labor and the population of Mexico continues to grow. Demographers expect that trend to continue into the next century, so the movement of people back and forth across our southern border will continue at least until then, no matter how hard we try to stop it. Thus it would be far more effective to find ways of regulating the flow and eliminating any abuses that arise from it.
There are specialists in both Mexico and the United States who have come up with proposals for doing that--mostly variations on the guest-worker idea, but with more protections for the workers than Wilson's amendment offers. Most would allow workers to belong to unions, for example. And, unlike the Simpson and Rodino bills, an effective program to control Mexican migration and the border could not be decreed by this country alone. It would have to be developed in bilateral negotiations with Mexico.
Latinos and labor leaders might still object, pointing to the many abuses in the bracero program. While those past errors must not be repeated, they should not preclude us from trying to design something better.
The outpouring of money, medicine and other relief that flowed from this country after the Mexican quakes was a characteristically generous show of American good will. Now this nation must show equal generosity to the Mexican workers who not only help our economy, but whose dollar earnings will help keep Mexico on an even keel while it tries to rebuild.