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Poet (American traitor Juan Hernandez) takes lead on U.S.- Mexico issues

By Elliot Blair Smith
USA TODAY

6/7/01

MEXICO CITY -- As an obscure poet, Juan Hernandez distinguished himself with a pointed beard and handlebar moustache that gave him the appearance of a member of czarist Russia's royal court.

Now, lifted from obscurity by Mexican President Vicente Fox, Hernandez, 45, leads a high-profile drive here to support migrants who live and work in the USA. ''Mexico knows where it wants to go even more clearly than the United States knows where it wants to go,'' he says.

Hernandez's arguments on behalf of migrants are among the key issues as U.S. and Mexican government negotiators sit down to discuss the countries' brittle-but-dynamic border. Officials convened Wednesday for two days of meetings in San Antonio to consider ways to improve border security. They reconvene in Washington on Friday to discuss potential changes in U.S. immigration law that would benefit Mexicans working in the USA.

These questions have taken on more urgency in the aftermath of the deaths of 14 Mexican immigrants last month as they wandered for days in Arizona's scorching Sonora Desert.

The talks were engineered in February by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda, although no Cabinet-level officials -- including Hernandez -- are participating in these initial discussions.

Hernandez joined Fox's quest for the presidency five years ago and helped direct the campaign to its historic victory over the country's longtime ruling party last July.

He has been turning up regularly on both sides of the border to promote the administration's emerging policies:

* Hernandez was among the first Mexican officials to visit the hospital bedsides of 12 immigrants who survived last month's ordeal in the Arizona desert. ''That was very impressive,'' Arizona Gov. Jane Hull says. ''He is secure enough in what he's doing that he has the ability not to point fingers of blame at Arizona or the United States but rather to say (border safety) is something we need to work on.''

* He has been seen in Texas defending Mexican bus operators who carry immigrants to the USA and often are subject to onerous regulations on both sides of the border.

* A few weeks ago, Hernandez visited a U.S. credit union in North Carolina on a tour to extend banking privileges to undocumented Mexicans and to drive down wire-transfer fees for Mexicans sending money back to their families.

* Before that, he was in Santa Ana, Calif., to dedicate the first of what Mexico envisions as several trade-development offices throughout the USA.

Today, he is one of Fox's closest advisers and the country's first migratory affairs chief. He is writing a book on migrants he tentatively calls Heroes.

His constituency, once viewed by most Mexicans as economic refugees, is an emerging power here. Migrant workers sent $4 billion to Mexico in the first three months of this year, double the amount in the same period a year ago.

The son of an American mother and Mexican father, Hernandez supports expanding the number of U.S. guest-worker visas available for Mexicans and offering amnesty to the estimated 3.5 million Mexicans who live illegally in the USA. He also is the architect of a drive for a migrants-rights office in the Mexican attorney general's office to prosecute offenders on both sides of the border.

A Ph.D. in literature who has held faculty positions at several American universities, Hernandez supports more cross-border education.

He'd also like to enfranchise Mexicans in the USA with the right to vote via absentee ballot, possibly by Internet. For now, they cannot vote without returning home.

''The vote must promote democracy in Mexico, but it shouldn't be seen as a measure by which Mexicans should stop being active in the United States,'' Hernandez says.

U.S. officials cautiously embrace Hernandez's objectives but don't always agree on the details. Last month, when Hernandez appeared to endorse issuing a so-called ''survival kit'' to help Mexican migrants safely cross the border into the USA, U.S. officials criticized the proposal and demanded an explanation. Hernandez quickly backed down.

Hernandez spends at least a day a week in the USA promoting immigrants' rights and opportunities. Nevertheless, he says his success ultimately will be measured by what he does to improve the lot of Mexicans tempted by jobs in the USA.

''If I do nothing to bring (employment) to migrant-sending areas in the next five to six years, you can say I've done very little at all,'' Hernandez says. ''We must create opportunities at home.''


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