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Americans Oppose Open Border

Sunday, 09 September 2001 12:00 AM

If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, legal and illegal immigration from south of the border rivals it as the trip wire of an explosive issue capable of destroying political careers and dividing the nation and its political parties into warring camps.

Last Wednesday, barely a day after Mexico's President Vicente Fox arrived for his state visit, Fox unexpectedly lit the fuse and set off the explosion before the two presidents could get down to brass tacks in discussing the presence of millions of illegal Mexican immigrants already in the U.S., and millions more who ache to come here.

Solve the problem before the year 2001 ends, Fox demanded of his host, who had no idea it was coming.

The extent of the problem is illustrated by the fact that since 1970, the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. has swelled from around 800,000 to more than 8 million, half of them illegal, according to BusinessWeek magazine.

Moreover, with the Mexican economy in even worse shape than the U.S. economy, millions more look northward for jobs and a better life. As a result, the tide of illegal immigrants swarming into the U.S. has become an unstoppable wave crashing over the U.S.-Mexico border day and night.

"The cold fact is that we have more undocumented immigrants today than we've ever had since they started counting," Michael Fix, director of immigration studies at the Urban Institute, told BusinessWeek. "It makes sense to rethink the policy."

Both Fox and Bush agree that somehow the restrictions on immigration from Mexico must be eased, a fact Bush recognized in an Aug. 29 speech: "If you can make a living in America, and you can't find a job in Mexico, family values don't stop at the southern border," he said.

"People are coming to work to provide food for their families."

In a speech before both houses of Congress Thursday, Fox laid out his case for a new approach to the problem, saying that those Mexicans now in the United States are entitled to legalized status.

"The time has come for Mexico and the United States to trust each other," he said, adding that "Trust will be essential to achieve our goals."

Fox went on to say that he and President Bush in recent months "have already shown our willingness to trust each other by agreeing to discuss this most complex matter."

"As the history of this country shows, migration has always rendered more economic benefits to the United States than the cost it entails."

"Many among you have a parent or a grandparent who came into this country as an immigrant from another land," he said.

And, in remarks clearly aimed at his countrymen now living in the United States, Fox said: "Mexico needs you. We need your talent and entrepreneurship. We need you to come home one day and play a part in building a strong Mexico."

Clearly, both Bush and Fox are aiming at a serious revision of U.S. immigration policies. Not so clear are their chances of seeing their agenda succeed.

Both presidents agreed on making joint efforts to crack down on drug trafficking and money laundering and speeding up the movement of goods across border bridges, and made plans to cooperate on energy ventures. For his part, Bush restated his support for allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roads.

But the thorniest issue of all is how the U.S. will handle the explosive issue of legalizing the status of illegal Mexican immigrants now in the U.S. Bush aides are working on a proposal for a new guest-worker program that could allow hundreds of thousands of other Mexicans to obtain temporary visas to work legally in the U.S. There are also ongoing discussions for Mexico's help in policing the border and cracking down on the smuggling of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

"This is an issue that is at least as complex as NAFTA," warns Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. Moreover, the politics of the issue pose serious questions as to just how much can be accomplished.

The obstacles are daunting:

"How many foreigners should be admitted legally?" the magazine asked. "Should admission be based more on skills or family ties? How can the flow of illegals be curbed?"

"Every sacred component of the system is likely to come under question," Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of Washington's Migration Policy Institute, told BusinessWeek.

On the plus side is the belief that immigrant labor helped fuel the U.S. economic boom and kept inflation down. Moreover, labor-short American companies and farmers found workers who would do jobs Americans wouldn't take.

Employers, in fact, are still clamoring for low-wage Mexicans to work in restaurants, hotels, meatpacking plants, and construction. "If there were a way to get more workers from abroad legally, that would be great," Becky Duckworth, general manager of Snowmass Club in Aspen, Colo., told BusinessWeek. Keeping that resort fully staffed is a chronic headache, says Duckworth. About 20 percent of its 300 workers are foreign, many of them legal Mexican dishwashers and chambermaids.

Some leaders of organized labor also see immigrants as a potential source for declining union membership. Even the AFL-CIO has endorsed amnesty for illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.

Despite the advantages of looser immigration policies, the opposition is strong and vocal.

In his speech to Congress Thursday, Fox said he recognized that many on both sides of the 2,000-mile-long border viewed closer ties "risky and perhaps even unwise."

But he said he didn't believe the old adage that "good fences make good neighbors."

"Circumstances have changed. We are now bound closer together ... our links are countless and growing," he said.

In his toast to Fox at a lavish White House state dinner Wednesday night, Bush said U.S.-Mexican ties "go beyond economics and politics and geography. They are the ties of heritage, culture and family." He added that nearly 1 million people cross the border every day, and a quarter trillion dollars worth of trade flows across each year.

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If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, legal and illegal immigration from south of the border rivals it as the trip wire of an explosive issue capable of destroying political careers and dividing the nation and its political parties into warring camps. ...
Sunday, 09 September 2001 12:00 AM
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