MEXICO CITY — The Simpson-Rodino Immigration Act of 1986 was a source of constant debate and acrimony in Mexico long before it actually took effect. A significant number of Mexican observers of the U.S. legislative process were sure that the American Congress would never pass an immigration reform bill; when, after years of postponement, the law came into being last November, many in Mexico predicted that it would be inoperable, thanks to its loose and confusing regulations and application procedures. Once the law took effect in May, however, this attitude changed, and a serious discussion on U.S. immigration policy gradually is emerging in Mexico.
Originally this debate was dominated by a widespread fear of massive deportations from the United States, and by the more well-founded concern that the new legislation would have a deterrent effect on the flow of new undocumented Mexican workers to the United States. Committees were hastily set up to receive deportees; politicians swore that those expelled from the United States would be given preference in finding new jobs in Mexico and in receiving assistance from the government. All in all, there seemed to be a generalized perception that the law was directed against Mexico and would cause the country severe damage. There were calls for a united national effort to protect Mexican citizens from a racist, xenophobic piece of U.S. legislation that was unilateral and highly contrary to Mexico's interests.
While the government of President Miguel de la Madrid refrained from taking a public stance along these lines, influential sectors identified with the government were voicing these concerns in no uncertain terms. Those with more reserved views tended to take an opposite, though perhaps equally extreme tack: They argued that the law would ultimately be meaningless, since it would have no significant or lasting effect on the ebb and flow of a binational labor market that is not subject to unilateral control or regulation.
It will be several months before the potentially most damaging provisions of the law take effect--the sanctions against American employers of undocumented immigrants. Yet the debate in Mexico has already shifted focus, to emphasize the self-defeating, counterproductive nature of Simpson-Rodino; the stress is on its drawbacks for the United States, not Mexico. A few weeks back, Mexican newspapers were writing about deportation and the decline of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States. More recently, the papers were highlighting reports about crops in California and Oregon rotting in the fields because of a dramatic lack of stoop labor, and about the garment industry in the Los Angeles area suffering losses without a "cost-effective" work force.
Those who hold that Simpson-Rodino is fated to collapse were encouraged by changes announced last week in the law's regulations for admitting farm workers. Now, almost any agricultural laborer can enter the United States without papers and work for 90 days simply by stating that he was employed on American farms in the past. This hastily drawn concession to growers tends to support the view here that the "reform" law will create far more difficulties for its country of origin than for the nation it was mainly directed at.
This Mexican view, while perhaps not fully accurate, is not entirely arbitrary. Mexico has long held that the United States benefited as much as its neighbor from the previous, mutually convenient arrangement. American laws were paid little heed, and Mexican dignity was often tarnished by the shoddy living and working conditions for many Mexican nationals in the United States, but the system worked. Attempts to reform it or abolish it seemed to be more a matter of American ideological considerations than pragmatic policy-making.
Given the rough start of Simpson-Rodino, it is perhaps natural for Mexicans to gloat, and even to proclaim the law as being "on its death bed," as Jorge Bustamante, the country's leading authority on immigration issues, did last week.
At the same time, this attitude may be premature. Quite possibly, it underestimates the law's medium-term effect on Mexican emigration. It also may underestimate the United States' obsession with laws and jurisprudence, forgetting that when American pragmatism clashes with American legalism, the outcome is always uncertain. U.S. history is rife with laws that did not work and were clearly absurd, yet were enforced and remained on the books for a long time.
But after years of hearing that Mexicans were taking away American jobs, and making the United States "lose control of its borders," a certain dose of "We told you so" satisfaction over the present state of affairs is not entirely out of order. It never hurts to feel needed, and Mexican labor today appears more necessary than ever to the well-being of important sectors of the American economy.