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Tuesday, January 2, 2000

President Fox's priorities include immigration

By ANGELES NEGRETE LARES
The Brownsville Herald

MATAMOROS - During his recent visit to the border, Mexican President Vicente Fox reinforced one of his immigration goals - to defend the rights of Mexican immigrants in the United States, whether there legally or otherwise.

"As a priority of the new government, we will demand that Mexican and U.S. authorities respect immigrants' rights. We will not tolerate any kind of abuse," Fox said during his December trip to Matamoros to greet paisanos - Mexican citizens returning home after working abroad.

The paisano initiative is the leading volley for two ambitious long-term projects - a comprehensive program of temporary U.S. visas for Mexican workers and opening the border. Fox said it will take 10 years to implement the two programs, both of which are controversial on both sides of the Rio Grande.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the United States has the highest immigration levels in the world and Mexicans benefit most from that policy.

From 1988 to 1998, more than 10 million people were legally admitted into the United States, embassy statistics show. Of the 660,477 admitted in 1998, 20 percent, or 130,661, were from Mexico, more than any other nation. China was second with 41,034. But those numbers don't reflect illegal immigration.

The U.S. Department of Justice implemented several operations to curb illegal immigration along the border with Mexico. Operation Hold the Line began in 1993 in El Paso; Operation Gate Keeper in California in 1994, Operation Safeguard in Tucson, Ariz., in 1995 and Operation Rio Grande in the Rio Grande Valley in 1997.

The campaigns to deter illegal immigration have been a source of controversy among immigrant rights organizations, which claim the operations violate immigrants' rights.

In the last three years, about 400 immigrants have died along the Texas-Tamaulipas border, according to the Border Studies Center in Reynosa and Casa Proyecto Libertad in Harlingen.

In early June, two immigrants drowned near the Gateway International Bridge in the presence of officials from both sides of the Rio Grande and a television news team.

The dramatic images triggered public indignation against the U.S. Border Patrol, Mexico's Grupo Beta and the television crew that filmed the drownings.

Luis Rubio of the Research Center for Academic Development (CIDAC) at the Colegio de México in Mexico City, said the Fox administration is right to focus its foreign policy on human rights and immigration issues, but that it now needs to turn campaign rhetoric into action.

CIDAC is a non-political group that deals with immigration issues.

"Mexico-U.S. relations are complex and one key issue is the problem of immigration," Rubio said. "These will be some of the major challenges the new administration has: To try to change a very negative position for Mexican immigrants, to continue the defense of Mexicans without legal papers and to try to enforce respect for human rights regarding immigration," he said.

Fox created a Congressional Commission on Border Population and Immigrant Issues to establish a binational dialogue on the subject.

The commission plans a series of lectures in coordination with the U.S. Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service - and the agencies' counterparts in Mexico, Grupo Beta and the National Immigration Institute, respectively. The lectures are to evaluate anti-illegal immigrant operations and coordinate binational tactics for aquatic rescue. The first is to be held Jan. 20 in Tijuana, the commission said.

The Fox administration also will insist on support for immigrants through the 39 Mexican consulates in the United States.

The consulates' responsibilities include free legal defense to Mexicans prosecuted in U.S. federal and state courts; investigation of complaints presented by Mexicans against INS officials and a census of Mexican citizens in INS detention centers. Brownsville and McAllen both have Mexican consulates that are supervised by the General Consulate in Dallas.

Fox's campaign proposal to establish freer movement of Mexican workers to the United States received a lukewarm reception by then-presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Since mid-2000, the Mexican state of Zacatecas has worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to establish an H2B visa program for non-agricultural, minimum-skilled Mexican workers at factories in Texas, Nevada and New Jersey.

Under the program, U.S. companies must show the Labor Department they cannot find workers in their communities.

Fox's plan is to establish a similar program over the next 10 years that would include professionals and agricultural workers. The U.S.-Zacatecas pilot guest-worker program is expanding, its main objective - to satisfy the need for workers north of the border without increasing illegal immigration, U.S. officials said.

To accomplish this, the INS agreed to allow minimum-skilled workers into the country as factory workers.

Tamaulipas state Rep. Victor Hugo Moreno Delgadillo of the National Action Party, said the program has the potential for expansion to other Mexican states.

"Yes, it is viable to do it from the point of view that many people need work," Moreno said, adding that the U.S. companies presumably would recruit workers from less-developed Mexican states where jobs are hardest to find.

But immigrant advocacy groups are against the program.

"U.S. companies are only looking for slaves in Mexico," said Benigno Peña, head of the South Texas Immigration Council, a Brownsville-based immigrant advocacy group. "There are laborers in the United States, but they prefer Mexicans who don't know their rights and are easy prey."

Meanwhile, members of the Union movement in Matamoros criticize the working visa program.

"Everyone fears this program, because people who participate in these guest worker plans are footloose and those kinds of people are not good for us," said Juan Mendoza Reyes, secretary at the Maquila Industry Workers Union. The union has about 10,000 members in 50 maquillages in Matamoros.

"Truly, people that participate in these programs (working visas) are not useful to us because, in Matamoros, we have established people that would rather have stability at home and a job, not come and go without a future," he said.

During his presidential campaign, Fox advocated a second stage to the North American Free Trade Agreement to make it possible to open the border to Mexican workers.

In Fox has said it would take about 10 years to open the border by eliminating disparity in salaries between the two countries, thereby reducing the motivation for illegal immigration.

The U.S. minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. In the northern Mexico, it's 37.9 pesos per day, or about $4.

At the same time, immigrants send home about $30 billion annually from the United States, about one-third of it going to Mexico and Central America, said Juan Hernandez Senter of the recently formed Presidential Office for Mexicans Abroad.

Mexicans working in the United States send home $7 billion annually, said Hernandez Senter, whose office is under the Foreign Relations Department in Mexico City.

Hernandez Senter said Mexico couldn't open its borders unless it establishes a common market with its commercial partners. Fox's proposal is viable, but only in the long term and in case of a free trade agreement or a common market," he said. He said U.S. officials also have talked about open borders, if NAFTA were extended to a North America common market. "At this time, I do not see a viable formula for countries without these kinds of agreements to open their borders to other countries' nationals," Hernandez Senter said.

But the INS is opposed to the idea.

"If open borders could exist, even for 10 years, this would lead to immigration chaos because there will no longer be any kind of control. No, it really isn't viable," said Arturo Moreno, an INS spokesman in Harlingen.

According to the CONAPO, or Mexican National Population Council, in the last three years, nearly 900,000 Mexicans established residency in the United States, increasing the number of Mexicans in the country to 8 million, about 8 percent of the total population of Mexico.