Union Tribune

July 18, 2003

Mexico won't halt unlawful U.S. entry
Minister's stance defies spirit of deal


WASHINGTON Two years ago, near the beginning of Jorge Castaneda's tenure as Mexico's foreign secretary, he floated a bold plan for managing the old problem of illegal immigration to the United States.

If the United States would legalize millions of Mexicans already here and invite others to come as temporary workers, Mexico would end its laissez faire policy at the border and take firm steps to block illegal immigrants from crossing.

But last week a member of Mexican President Vicente Fox's Cabinet flatly rejected the notion that Mexico would restrain its people's illegal movement into the United States.

"We are not going to do that," said Secretary of Governance Santiago Creel. The Mexican Constitution guarantees "complete freedom of movement" within Mexico, said Creel. "We can't put up a checkpoint or a customs station inside our territory."

Creel's remarks were a restatement of long-standing Mexican policy. But they also were the first public disavowal by a Mexican Cabinet official of the strategy advanced by Castaneda, who resigned in January, largely out of frustration at the lack of progress in the immigration talks.

Castaneda's half-brother, Andres Rozental, who advised Mexican immigration negotiators, said Mexico proposed a "quid pro quo." The offer to restrain cross-border movements "was the quid," he said.

"You both gave and took," said Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister. "The 'take' was you received an orderly way for a large number of Mexicans to go to the United States, and in exchange (Mexico promised) to play its role in ensuring that the vast majority go that way."

There is disagreement about whether Mexican negotiators actually ever made an express offer to halt illegal immigration on their side of the border.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow disputes Rozental's contention that it was a concrete offer.

Davidow, who closely followed the immigration talks, said Mexican negotiators were less ambitious than Rozental recalls.

"That idea was never presented at the technical-level meetings," said Davidow, who now heads the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla. "That was the greatest weakness in the whole negotiating scenario: The Mexican 'quid' was not going to be big enough for the U.S. 'quo.' What were they going to doStart a Border Patrol the same size as ours to keep the Mexicans from crossing?"

Rozental said the strategy was based on Fox's enormous popularity at the beginning of his presidency. They had hoped it would enable him to sell sweeping and controversial immigration reform on both sides of the border. But Fox's popularity has fallen considerably since then, and the talks stalled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Rozental disputed Creel's contention that a program to restrict illegal immigration would violate the Mexican Constitution.

"The Constitution says that Mexicans have freedom of movement, but it also says (that movement is) subject to administrative regulations. The administrative regulations are already out there."

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, who studies U.S.-Mexico relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said limitations on emigrants would be a hard sell in a country where millions of people see the United States as their only alternative to poverty.

"How can you deny someone a chance for the decent life you cannot provide them?" he said.

Peschard-Sverdrup drew a parallel between the reluctance of Mexican political leaders to restrain illegal immigrants at the border and the refusal of their U.S. counterparts to enforce workplace sanctions against employers who deliberately hire illegal immigrants.

"Politically, both things are very difficult," he said.

Meanwhile, Creel, a likely 2006 presidential candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), says Mexico is helping target immigrant smugglers.

"We have been able to collaborate very closely with the American government, particularly in combating organized crime in the matter of people trafficking," he said.

A sweeping immigration deal appeared to be moving quickly in 2001, but talks between the Bush and Fox administrations largely halted after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Mexican officials have been encouraged by recent expressions of support for a broad legalization program, particularly among prominent congressional Democrats.

Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has teamed with House Minority leader and presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., in declaring that the United States "must ensure that hardworking immigrants have an opportunity to earn legalization."

Daschle and Gephardt have prodded the Bush administration to "reactivate" the immigration agenda with Mexico.

Debate about a legalization program would be especially divisive for Republicans. While Bush has sought to court Hispanic voters, some Republicans see a mass-legalization program as rewarding illegal immigration.

Several bills to ease immigration from Mexico are being drafted. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he intends to sponsor legislation that would allow Mexicans already in the United States to apply for guest-worker status and put them on a path to citizenship. Flake said he would not be discouraged by Mexican refusal to restrain illegal immigrants on their side of the border.

"If Mexico agrees to help, that would be great, but the U.S. needs to move ahead on immigration reform anyway," he said.