Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto has let the U.S. know that Mexico… (Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — Here is what you probably won't see in the coming weeks as the U.S. Congress debates a sweeping immigration overhaul: Mexico becoming involved.
Though the United States' southern neighbor is the country with the most at stake as Washington considers changing its policy toward illegal immigrants, Mexican diplomats and government officials are expected to keep a low profile to avoid the appearance of meddling in U.S. affairs and to minimize any potential backlash among conservatives in the States.
Mexican President Enrique "Peña Nieto, and the foreign minister and our new ambassador have all more or less said the same thing about Mexico's role in this, and the message is, 'We're interested, and we'll help if you think we can, but we're not going to take an active role,'" said Andres Rozental, a Mexico City consultant and former deputy foreign minister.
Mexicans in recent years have learned to tiptoe around the issue of U.S. immigration policy, speaking out in favor of reform on occasion but generally lobbying and advising U.S. lawmakers with discretion, Rozental said, so as not "to provoke any of the recalcitrant elements" in Congress and the heartland who are opposed to granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.
That sensitivity was on display when, a few days before his Dec. 1 swearing-in, Peña Nieto met with President Obama in Washington. In a joint appearance, Peña Nieto told Obama that Mexicans "fully support" the idea of immigration reform but said, "More than demanding what you should do or shouldn't do, we do want to tell you that we want to contribute. We really want to participate with you."
Mexico learned its lesson in subtlety the hard way. In 2001, then-President Vicente Fox made U.S. immigration reform his top foreign policy priority and lobbied vigorously for it, bolstered in part by his close relationship with then-President George W. Bush.
The effort was derailed in large part by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after which border security trumped immigrant rights among U.S. policymakers. But Fox kept at it, touring parts of the U.S. to make his case directly to the people.
Some U.S. conservatives were appalled. During one of Fox's campaign-like swings through Arizona, a Republican state legislator complained that the Mexican president "seems to be promoting illegal immigration and taking pride in the fact that his people are up here benefiting from our job market and social welfare."
Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former Mexican diplomat, said Fox's constant stumping for immigration reform confirmed "those suspicions in the U.S. that the Mexican government actually wanted to open the safety valve" by sending the underemployed north of the border.
Though Mexico's subsequent president, Felipe Calderon, also supported immigration reform, observers say he and his team were more subtle, preferring to focus on low-key lobbying in Washington.
It was only after a major immigration reform effort foundered in the U.S. Senate in 2007 — Washington's last serious attempt at reform until this week — that Calderon, apparently figuring he had little to lose, ratcheted up the rhetoric, speaking more forcefully about the need for an immigration reform law, according to Andrew Selee, a Mexico expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
That may have scored Calderon political points at home, but it continued to rankle conservatives in the U.S. When Arizona passed SB 1070, its illegal-immigration crackdown law, in 2010, the Calderon administration filed a brief in federal court in support of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer accused Mexicans of "meddling" in matters beyond their borders.
These days, immigration remains an important topic to Mexicans, but perhaps not as important as a decade ago, when illegal crossings into the U.S. were much more common. In 2000, the start of Fox's six-year term, U.S. border officials apprehended about 1.6 million migrants at the Mexican border; by fiscal 2011, that number had dropped to 327,000, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.
Peña Nieto's team may have also noticed that it is politically risky for a president to try to bring reform to a country he doesn't govern. When Fox failed to do so, his opponents at home bashed him mercilessly, accusing him of kowtowing to a gringo president but receiving nothing in return.
The new Mexican president's strategy appears to be to hang back and hope that reform passes this time, fueled by the new dynamic within the country: Republicans' fear that they could lose subsequent generations of Latino voters.
If reform does pass, it will be Peña Nieto's good luck. But some say Fox deserves at least some credit for raising awareness of the immigrants' plight.
Fox not only raised the profile of the issue in the U.S., he also changed the way Mexican officials talk about their countrymen who left for the north, said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
"It was Fox, when he came in, who said [illegal immigrants to the U.S.] are heroes — that we need to have a positive attitude about the people who left," Davidow said. "That wasn't really the view before."