Border Colleagues: On Migration, Bush and Fox Belong on the Same Side

September 2, 2001

When Mexican President Vicente Fox comes to Washington this week as the first foreign leader accorded a state visit by the George W. Bush White House, both presidents will be championing the rights of Mexican migrants in the United States—because both see the issue as a key to domestic political success. Bush envisions Republican victories in 2004 and beyond if the party can boost its share of the growing Latino vote; and Fox believes migration is an issue that can re-energize his sagging presidency back home. In a sense, they are trying to ride each other’s coattails.

It may seem surprising that Fox needs political help. After all, he overturned the 71-year-rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in a sensational upset last year. But in that three-way race, Fox won only a plurality, and his opponents kept control of both houses of Mexico’s newly powerful and independent Congress. Currently, some of his key proposals are tied up in Congress or in the Supreme Court, paradoxically held hostage by the newly democratic system. Moreover, Mexico’s economy is tanking, mostly as a result of the U.S. downturn, and there is little Fox can do about that.

So Fox hopes to score a victory in foreign policy, the area in which he exerts the most control. A U.S. migration deal would assist him with two important constituencies—the families of Mexican migrants and the human rights community. More than half of all Mexicans have close relatives in the United States. Migrants form a formidable constituency in part because they send home remittances that are likely to reach $10 billion this year, outstripping tourism as a source of foreign exchange. The donations of migrants are keeping countless Mexican families and many hometowns on their feet.

Even migrants who don’t make it over the border influence politics back home. Televised images of Mexican corpses baking in the Arizona desert periodically horrify their compatriots. Such deaths are a big human rights issue in a country where the media and public opinion now strongly influence government policy.

When Fox and Bush travel to the Midwest this week, Fox will be promising Latino audiences his support for legislation that would give Mexican immigrants in the United States the right to vote in Mexico’s elections. If he succeeds, sections of the United States with large Mexican populations will get to experience the organized chaos of a Mexican election—with candidates traveling north of the border to extend their campaigns not just to the American Southwest, but into Illinois, North Carolina, Nebraska and New York. (Producers for reality TV, take note.)

But Fox’s main goal on this trip is a migration deal that he can sell back home. Since his election in July 2000, Mexico’s new president and his foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, have worked the issue in the United States from every angle—hustling immigration to the top of the bilateral agenda, then prompting the newly elected Bush to agree to a joint top-level migration task force.

Next they began feeding the fledgling administration memorandums calling for “regularization”—a series of steps that would turn Mexican migration from something that is illegal and dangerous into something that is legal and orderly. Measures would include a guest-worker program, the granting of more resident visas and certain rights for undocumented aliens. Meanwhile, Fox barnstormed prime Latino constituencies in the United States, telling them it was time for Washington to “get real” about immigration, while Castaneda proclaimed that President Bush must accept “the whole enchilada [i.e., regularization] or nothing.”

Will Bush, eager for Latino votes and for a foreign friend, swallow the entire spicy Mexican dish? The temptation is certainly there: The 2000 Census showed that Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the country’s largest minority. Bush got 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000; Republicans are aiming to exceed 40 percent in 2004, and they’re counting on Fox to help, starting with the three-fifths of Latinos who are of Mexican origin.

Bush could estrange traditional Republican voters by granting amnesty, the first step toward permanent residency and citizenship, to people who have broken U.S. law by entering the country. Thus he recently backed off from earlier indications that he might support a broad amnesty for illegal immigrants. But he has wisely left the door open to regularization, which unlike amnesty does not grant a full spectrum of legal residency rights, but would ensure that specified undocumented immigrants get basic health, education and labor rights while they are in the United States. They would be able to organize in unions, obtain driver’s licenses and Social Security cards and work without the threat of deportation.

Fox and Castaneda hold out the enticing prospect of an ultimate cessation of mass Mexican migration. Currently, 500,000 more Mexicans enter the Mexican labor force every year than there are jobs available. According to a Mexican government study, declining Mexican fertility rates will correct that imbalance by 2015; Castaneda cites the study often, arguing that when there are enough jobs in Mexico for Mexicans, the pressure to migrate northward will evaporate. The rosy scenario also counts on continued NAFTA expansion to create Mexican jobs and diminish the wage differential between our two countries. The example Fox invariably evokes is Western Europe in the 1970s, where economic growth in Italy, Spain and Portugal effectively ended migration from those countries to others in the Common Market.

On these matters we have not heard from James Ziglar, who is three weeks into his new job as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But the prospect charms his predecessor, Doris Meissner, who wrote in The Post last month that a Fox-Bush immigration deal “offers the chance for actually solving the problem of unauthorized migration from Mexico.”

Past trends don’t support that view. Though Mexican fertility rates have been declining steadily since the 1970s, emigration has climbed just as steadily. And it’s not the poorest of the poor who migrate: Eighty percent of those who leave have jobs before they go, and they have to come up with about $2,000 to pay smuggling charges. Likewise, NAFTA has been in place for nearly a decade, but the wage gap between American and Mexican workers has widened, not closed. U.S. wages are 13 times Mexico’s, a gap much wider than the one that prevailed in Europe in the 1970s.

At the border, Mexico has committed itself, as Meissner puts it, to “regulate travel through authorized crossings, combat migrant smuggling and strengthen the rule of law.” But law in Mexico remains terribly weak, and its migration authorities rank among the shadier of Mexico’s notorious law enforcement agencies. How well can Mexicans police their border even if they want to? And that is a doubtful intention in light of emigration’s obvious benefits to Mexico.

Bush may well see other downsides to an immigration deal with Mexico. An economic downturn could bring out resentment against foreigners, although those most challenged economically by migrants—African Americans, other minorities and poor whites—are also those with the weakest political voices.

Nor is migration an unmixed blessing for Mexico. Forty years of continued mass migration have hollowed out swaths of rural Mexico, leaving it unhealthily dependent on remittances from the north. At best, migration buys time for Mexico to do what is necessary to stop it—develop economically. But clearly the best bet for spurring economic development is a popular democratic government. And that government needs the safety valve of migration while it gets its act together.

What cooperation between Bush and Fox promises is not so much closure as order. In the past, U.S. immigration policy has swung back and forth depending on current politics: a broad amnesty in 1986 that legalized more than 3 million undocumented workers; numerous state and federal laws in the mid-1990s that restricted the rights of unauthorized immigrants; and, now, pressure for amnesty again. A Bush-Fox agreement could stabilize that situation.

In addition, it could rescue immigration policy from what political scientist James Q. Wilson dubs “client politics,” whose benefits are concentrated—in this case, on unauthorized immigrants, new guest workers, low-wage employers and ethnic lobbies—while its costs are dispersed, mainly to taxpayers in destination states and to people working in low-wage jobs. As immigration expert Peter Skerry writes, that has meant that “immigration policy usually gets made quietly or unobtrusively.” By putting the issue on the public agenda, Bush and Fox have put an end to that.

They have the opportunity to establish a policy of “earned regularization”—not another broad amnesty, but a bilateral agreement that would have specific residency and occupational requirements and would stipulate that the immigrants learn English, in return for a verifiable commitment by Mexico to police its borders. Fox now allows the FBI to vet his drug agents; why not allow the United States to vet Mexico’s migration police?

Not only do the United States and Mexico share a 2,000-mile border and a complex, sometimes bitter, history, but for better or worse, we have become integrated to a degree that may surprise those who live outside the Southwest. The Bush-Fox intimacy transcends personal chemistry and reflects the strucatural convergence between the two countries. It would be a historic achievement if they were now able to reach a stable, bilateral agreement on migration.