Union Tribune

May 13, 2003

Oil and migration make explosive mix in Mexico 


WASHINGTON A proposal linking an immigration deal with Mexico to an opening of Mexico's oil industry to foreign investment has sparked outrage in Mexico City.

"Blackmail" bellowed a headline on the front page of El Universal, Mexico's largest paper. Its Web site invited readers to speak out, and many of their comments plumbed Mexico's well of historical grievance and suspicion toward the United States.

"These gringos have no mother," wrote Jacinto Munoz Garcia, using a particularly scornful phrase. "First they take half our territory, then they take our peasant workers, and now they want our oil."

Mexico's politicians reacted with similar patriotic passion. The leader of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, Rosario Robles, demanded that President Fox "hitch up his trousers and defend the national patrimony against the American pressures."

Fox, who was politically bludgeoned once after floating the idea of foreign investment for the state-owned Pemex, lined up as demanded.

"Pemex forms not just a part of our economy but of our history," he declared, invoking proud memories of Mexico's bold 1938 nationalization of oil interests held by Americans and others. "It has not been nor will be for sale."

GOP members of the House Committee on International Relations wanted to link U.S. willingness to legalize Mexican immigrants to a Mexican agreement that its state-owned oil industry would be open to foreign investment.

The resolution was a meaningless, if mischievous, bit of political gamesmanship. It was intended to counter a Democratic effort to pressure the White House to make concessions to Mexico. In practical terms, it meant nothing.

The melodrama actually began with an earlier resolution sponsored by Rep. Bob Menendez calling for a renewed U.S. commitment "to reach a migration accord" with Mexico. The New Jersey Democrat shares Fox's desire for a sweeping legalization of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

But the Republicans used their control of the committee to add a big petroleum twist, proposing that Mexico open Pemex to foreign investment in exchange for an immigration deal.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., who made the gambit, used some distinctly undiplomatic language in describing Pemex. He called the company "inefficient, plagued by corruption and in need of substantial reform and private investment in order to provide sufficient petroleum products to Mexico and the United States to fuel future economic growth which can help curb illegal migration into the United States."

The tempest in an oil drum received scant attention north of the border. But some Mexican commentators who say Pemex indeed needs foreign investment to meet Mexico's own growing energy needs responded with a sort of weary resignation.

"The reality is that we Mexicans should be the first ones interested in opening our oil industry to foreign investment and competition," columnist Sergio Sarmiento wrote in the daily newspaper Reforma. "But this is something that our politicians aren't willing to accept. None of them dares to go against a national taboo. None of them has the courage to recognize that our country would be more prosperous and sovereign if it accomplished this opening."

What Fox most wants to accomplish with the United States is an immigration deal, which would make him a hero. But in its proposal to the United States, the Fox government touches upon another Mexican taboo.

It has offered to control illegal migratory flows across the border in return for a U.S. commitment both to legalize migrants established here and to issue Mexicans an unspecified number of temporary visas on a permanent basis.

Mexican officials have long said they cannot stop immigrants from entering the United States because the Mexican Constitution guarantees the right of movement. They respond with a shrug to the observation that the Constitution also requires that persons enter and leave the country at designated border crossing points.

If President Fox sincerely clamped down at the border, he would run into the buzz saw of Mexican hypersensitivity about defending national dignity in the face of U.S. expectations. Millions of Mexicans have a more direct stake in migration than in Pemex. Fox might make the commitment. But domestic politics might make it impossible for him to honor it.