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Go Easy on Mexico : Bilateral Consultation Can Avert Immigration Law Uproar

December 14, 1986|DORIS M. MEISSNER | Doris M. Meissner is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Mexico's reaction to the United States' newly enacted immigration law has been measured. In the week following Congress' vote, the lower house of Mexico's Congress passed a resolution "lamenting" the U.S. action. Mexican scholars have pointedly commented that the bill addresses migration "pull" factors only and will be ineffective because strong "push" factors remain. However, the government has not made it a public issue, and close observers believe it will take a wait-and-see approach.

This is wise. Mexico's past responses to pending immigration bills have been warnings against "unilateral" U.S. action to a "bilateral problem." But behind the words stood a record of failed bilateral attempts because Mexican interests have been best served by the status quo. Mexican policy has been not to have a policy.

Because passage of the Simpson-Rodino bill came as a surprise even to Congress-watching veterans, it is well to look carefully at what the bill actually provides before positions harden on this potentially volatile issue.

Migration north has been institutionalized in Mexico's economy, political system and social structure for decades, so any shift in U.S. policy is consequential. Mexico must create almost 1 million new jobs annually, numbers that the economy was unable to produce even during the high-growth years of the 1970s. About 300,000 Mexicans have been settling permanent-ly--and illegally--in the United States annually, according to U.S. Census estimates; others move back and forth, earning some part of their annual wage here. Although strengthened border enforcement and employer sanctions will interrupt the flow only partially, the potential impact on Mexico is still substantial.

But before additional enforcement begins, Mexican nationals who have been in the United States more than five years will be eligible for legalization. Also, the special program that grants status to persons who have worked in agriculture here as recently as this year will benefit Mexicans almost exclusively. Some are estimating that 800,000 people will qualify for this program alone. Moreover, "replenishment workers" are authorized if future agricultural labor needs can be shown.

Whatever the effects, they will give the migration issue an urgent new importance in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. It must now receive sustained attention in our diplomacy and be treated in terms broader than law enforcement.

Congress pointed the way by writing into the law a call for consultation with Mexico on implementation. The first step should be an early visit to Mexico by the secretary or deputy secretary of state. Justice and immigration officials should participate but not lead, as traditionally they have, to signal the substantive shift inherent in the new law. U.S. officials should underscore why the law is a legitimate, modest measure, not unlike that of other nations (including Mexico) to regulate migration and foster assimilation of immigrants. While Mexico cannot be expected to endorse our action--Mexican officials probably agree with the scholar who termed the new law another part of the "endless, vicious cycle of pressure" against Mexico--it may in time quietly accept the underlying principles, if only because it is experiencing increased difficulty controlling its southern border.

The central objective of the visit should be to establish a bilateral body for the exchange of information on implementation of the legislation. There are literally hundreds of implementation issues that could become irritants in an already uneasy relationship. One Mexican senator has condemned the U.S. decision to "deport more than 2 million Mexicans." There have been reports that aliens apprehended within 25 miles of the border will not be questioned about their potential eligibility for legalization. Both assertions are incorrect. They represent the seeds of serious misunderstandings that can be averted if we provide for accurate, timely information exchange.

Meetings should be regularly scheduled. Agenda items might include: the policy toward persons ineligible for legalization; enforcement and deportation policies preceding, during and following the legalization period; the requirements for eligibility evidence; agricultural worker benefits; the rights of newly legalized persons; the position of family members outside the United States; technology on the border; increases in border enforcement capabilities; employer sanctions strategies and timetables, and the activities of mandated new commissions on international migration and agricultural labor. There are many more.

Because policy and procedures are still developing, adjustments to accommodate particular needs or sensitivities of Mexico are possible if they can be identified and discussed.

Migration pressures spring from economic stagnation, population expansion, demand for low-wage labor and the daunting income differentials between us. Structured information-exchange will surely not alter those forces. But it will create a forum for debate and resolution of current, practical problems, with the implicit hope of laying one more pathway toward progress on the larger, long-range problems that we share.

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