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Keeping People Out Also Keeps Them In

July 08, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Ever since Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico last year, he has tried to reform our southern neighbor's political and economic systems with some provocative ideas for modernization. His most controversial proposal by far involves this country: an open border with the United States.

Sounds radical, but it really isn't. In fact, movement of people back and forth across the Mexican border has been a fact of life for generations. And now Fox has the right man working to put some meat on the bones of his idea--Mexico's smart, tough-talking foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda.

Castaneda is about as undiplomatic a Mexican diplomat as I know. But I mean that as a compliment. His provocative views, and his willingness to state them so forthrightly, may actually help bring about some resolution to long-standing issues on the U.S.-Mexico agenda. Consider his stance on the single most persistent issue facing the U.S. and Mexico: illegal immigration. He outlined his views at a recent meeting in Phoenix.

Castaneda oversees the Mexican negotiating team that is discussing with U.S. agencies--including the State Department and the Justice Department, which oversees the Immigration and Naturalization Service--the possibility of a new guest worker program. At the meeting in Phoenix, Castaneda made it clear that he would be pushing for "as many rights as possible for as many Mexicans as possible as soon as possible," including work visas for legal entry into the U.S., driver's licenses, Social Security numbers and the right to join labor unions.

He said that unless the guest worker proposals now under consideration in the U.S. Congress, like that of Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, granted those rights, then there would be no guest worker program. "It's the whole enchilada or nothing," Castaneda bluntly concluded.

Nobody wants that, least of all agribusiness, which has been pushing for a guest worker program for the past two years. So Castaneda's firm stance won't win him many friends among the political interests that dominate the immigration debate in Washington. But he will also irritate those Latino members of Congress--as well as some civil rights groups--who are pushing for liberalized immigration rules in the shortsighted belief that this is the answer. All this does is encourage more Latino immigrants to stay in this country and become U.S. citizens, which only stirs up anti-immigration feelings.

Both sides could learn a lot--not to mention find common ground for a viable labor-migration arrangement between this country and Mexico--if they would carefully consider Castaneda's proposal and what it is intended to do. At the heart of Castaneda's thinking is a restoration of what he calls the "circular character" of Mexican migration to the U.S.

As Castaneda correctly points out, the movement of poor Mexican workers from their underdeveloped country toward el Norte in search of better-paying jobs has been going on for at least a century. The only times this migratory pattern changes into permanent immigration is when conditions make it hard for Mexicans to easily get back and forth across the border, as during the Mexican Revolution. Otherwise, many Mexican workers have been content to enter this country, work for a few years, then return home to their families with a hard-earned nest egg.

The most recent interruption of this migratory pattern began in the early 1990s as the economic downturn following the end of the Cold War led to one of this nation's periodic spasms of anti-immigrant activism.

Ironically, anti-immigrant measures like California's Proposition 187 and the federal border crackdowns it inspired have created more immigration problems than they have solved.

By making it harder for Mexican workers to come and go, albeit illegally, they made it more likely that young Mexicans who do get into the country--and they do get in, in spite of the difficulty--stay once they arrive.

In other words, the harder we try to keep Mexicans out, the more we push them to become permanent immigrants rather than temporary, even seasonal, sojourners.

By restoring "circularity" to Mexican migration, Castaneda would be doing this country a favor. At a minimum he would help us solve a big part of our immigration problems in one fell swoop, if you believe the INS statistics that indicate that the vast majority of illegal immigrants detained in this country each year are Mexican nationals.

Castaneda's proposals are well worth considering, given that nothing else that's been tried to stem the tide of illegal immigration along our southern border has really worked. They could take us closer to the open border President Fox envisions and, as an added benefit, cool the rhetoric on a hot-button political issue.

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