Americas misguided immigration debate

Updated: Apr 29 2006, 05:30am hrs
A debate on immigration is beginning in the US Senate, which will take up several proposals. These include a hateful Bill, which the House of Representatives has approved, that provides for the construction of a wall along the US-Mexican border and makes unauthorised entry into the US a felony.

The Senate will also consider a Bill co-authored by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which proposes stronger border enforcement, a temporary workers programme with a path to residency and citizenship, and legalisation for people already in the US without papers. Another idea is to require anyone in the US wanting to regularise their immigration status to go home and wait.

This last component is largely rhetoric; it is hard to imagine any Mexican already in the US voluntarily returning to, say, Zacatecas, to wait patiently in line for a new visa. President George W Bush has been skirting the question ever since he committed himself to an immigration agreement with Mexico when he visited President Vicente Fox in Guanajuato almost exactly five years before.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there is Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specters compromise proposal. It also provides for reinforced security at the border, as well as a six-year non-renewable Temporary Workers Programme without a path to residency, although it would allow unauthorised immigrants to remain in the US with a new, non-immigrant, status. The latter status may or may not include a path to residency and citizenship; fudging the issue may be a negotiating tactic to avoid debate over whether this is a form of disguised amnesty. Which, fortunately, to a certain extent, it is.

Whats missing in the debate is the Latin American context. There was a time when North-South migratory flows in the western hemisphere were limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. That changed in the 1980s, when Central Americas civil wars sent hundreds of thousands of migrants through Mexico to the US. And then in the 1990s, when people fleeing violence in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador also began searching for opportunity.

Today, even Brazil, traditionally a country of immigration, has become one of emigration. Moreover, these migrants are no longer exclusively of rural origin; they are, literally, everywhere. Their remittances contribute to the economic welfare of their families and home countries economies.

Thus, whatever immigration policy emerges in the US will have an enormous impact south of the Rio Grande, well beyond Mexico. This will occur precisely at a time when Latin America is swerving left, with country after country drifting back to anti-American, populist stances: Venezuela in 1999, Bolivia last year, perhaps Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua this year.

The responsible left in Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay are an exception to the emerging rule set by Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez. The best way to spur the regions growing anti-American sentiment is to try to close the US-Mexican border (which will be futile). Instead, the US should establish humane, secure, and legal mechanisms of temporary or permanent entry for people the American economy needs and wants, and it should work with, not against, governments in Latin America.

Five years before, Mexicos President Vicente Fox tried to convince Bush that something had to be done before a nativist backlash in the US complicated its relations with Latin America and made goals such as a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas impossible. But matters have got worse: border tensions between the US and Mexico have grown, the proposed wall has rightly provoked indignation, more unauthorised immigrants than ever are entering the US and the FTA has collapsed.

Bush must begin to use what political capital he still has to support enlightened immigration reform, along the lines of the Kennedy-McCain Bill. He will never get a guest-worker programme without Democratic support. Which, in turn, is unlikely unless the White House supports access to a programme for unauthorised immigrants already in the US that includes some type of path to residence and citizenship.

Mexico and the US must be sensitive to domestic political concerns in both countries. No immigration deal is feasible north of the border without addressing security matters. South of the border, there is no conceivable Mexican cooperation on border security or on a Temporary Workers Programme if immigration reform ignores the nearly five million Mexican citizens without papers currently living in the US.

The best imaginable deal between the US and Mexico, or the best imaginable US immigration reform, will not eliminate the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico and South America overnight. Mexico has to assume responsibility for regulating this traffic, which mea-ns more than sealing off its southern border. The government could double welfare payments to households whose male heads stay home, threaten to revoke land reform rights after years of absence in rural communities and establish choke points on highways. Fox has said he is willing to break with old Mexican taboos, but the Bush administration has never taken him up on it. That is unfortunate, because Fox will not be around forever.

Immigration has always been an immensely complex and delicate issue inside the US, and now for Latin America as well. A window of opportunity opened at the beginning of Bushs first term and closed shut after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. It is opening again and should be taken advantage of before it is too late.

The writer, foreign minister of Mexico from 2000-03, is a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University. Copyright: Project Syndicate