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A step forward on immigration

Mexico praises U.S. for being receptive in talks

Jerry Kammer Republic
Washington Bureau
Apr. 5, 2001

WASHINGTON - Mexican President Vicente Fox's crusade to win new rights for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States gained momentum Wednesday with what the Mexican foreign minister called the "enormously receptive" attitude of top U.S. officials to his country's concerns.

"The final goal is to regularize the situation of those Mexicans who are without documents," Jorge Castaneda said after he and Mexican Interior Secretary Santiago Creel met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Lower-level officials then took over the complex and politically touchy task of seeking common ground for Fox and President Bush, who agreed that talks were needed during their February meeting at Fox's ranch.

Fox wants the United States to step back from a policy that has built up the Border Patrol, making illegal entry more difficult and dangerous, while avoiding the workplace raids that long made la migra a term of dread among illegal immigrants who commonly earn as much in one day as they can in a week in Mexico.

Under pressure from business interests and some members of Congress, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been reluctant to disrupt the industries - hotel, restaurant, farming, construction, meatpacking, roofing, landscaping, among others - that often depend on a supply of low-wage labor.

Perhaps the central question of the talks, which will continue over the next several months, is the meaning of "regularization."

The Mexicans have made it clear they want it to mean legalized work status, and such conveniences as access to driver's licenses and Social Security cards, as well as protections from abuse by unscrupulous employers.

But during a news conference at the Mexican Embassy here, Castaneda declined to say whether he favors the controversial proposal by immigrant advocates, such as Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor, to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. Castaneda evaded the question, preferring to speak in more general terms of his desire to improve conditions for illegal immigrants in the United States.

Questions surrounding illegal immigration have taken on added urgency in recent weeks with new census data suggesting that there may be almost 3 million more undocumented immigrants in the United States than previously estimated.

Adding to the concerns are fears of a possible economic downturn that would tighten a job market currently being fed by the estimated 150,000 Mexicans who enter the country illegally every year.

Powell and Ashcroft did not hold a news conference. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher touched upon the talks at his daily press briefing, hailing them as a move to address "very difficult and complicated areas of labor and migration."

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, calling U.S. policy on illegal immigration from Mexico "totally misguided and hypocritical," in an interview hailed the talks as a move toward a rational policy.

"The situation with illegal immigration is a crisis, and it needs to be solved politically and diplomatically," said Borane, whose border town has seen a dramatic strengthening of the Border Patrol. "It is not going to be solved at the border."

Borane called the policy of beefing up the Border Patrol "a charade" designed to calm the broad American public with the appearance of tough action. Meanwhile, he said, Mexicans continue to cross in huge numbers, paying higher prices to smugglers and confronting life-threatening desert heat to avoid detention.

"But it's hypocritical because the government doesn't really want to stop them," Borane said. "The people who own the businesses where the Mexicans go to work have too strong a lobby."

Borane, along with Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, favors expansion of a program that currently allows more than 40,000 "guest workers" to enter the United States. Two guest worker proposals have been presented in Congress with different approaches to the question of how long the workers should be allowed to stay.

Pastor, a Democrat who represents a heavily Latino district stretching from west Phoenix to Nogales and Yuma, favors the more direct approach of granting amnesty to immigrants with established ties to this country.

"Basically, we need to change their status from undocumented to documented," he said.

But Pastor said he received a discouraging response to the idea from Bush during a meeting Monday with the Hispanic Caucus.

"He said he didn't favor a broad amnesty," Pastor said. "I don't know what 'broad' means."

Bruce Goldstein of the Farmworker Justice Fund said he expects that those who favor a guest worker program leading to permanent residence will receive support from powerful business interests normally aligned with the Republican Party. Republicans generally have been less sympathetic to illegal immigrants than Democrats have been.

"There are employer groups who want to legalize their undocumented workers," Goldstein said. "I think they just might cut a deal with Latinos and immigrants rights groups and labor unions. I think we'll see some very interesting coalitions on this issue."

The talks are not the only signal of warm U.S. ties to the administration of Fox, whose dramatic victory in last year's presidential race ended seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has announced he will lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Mexico next week for meetings with its Mexican counterpart. It is believed to be the first time a Senate committee will conduct a joint meeting on foreign soil.

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