Will Reagan open the Mexican border?

President Reagan plans a visit to Mexico soon like his visit to Canada. the problems of oil and immigration will come up. Mexico with an annual population growth rate of more than 3 percent lies beside the United States with an 0.8 percent growth rate, the biggest such demographic confrontation on Earth. Talking to Walter Cronkite the other day at the White House Mr. Reagan hinted at an open border -- a situation apparently in which the friendly northern neighbor would relax or withdraw immigration restrictions to ease Mexico's internal population pressure in return, perhaps, for a deal on oil.

Mexico's population problem is serious. Its fertility rate recently has declined a little but it is still one of the highest. Wealth is poorly distributed. by 1990 Mexico City will be the largest metropolis on Earth with 22 million people. A recent study said, "Mexico is building one schoolroom every 50 minutes but in 50 minutes are born 240 Mexican children." The US border patrol stops and turns back about a million illegal immigrants a year. How many illegals get by or are already in the United States nobody knows; the recent two-year study by a select presidential commission gives a conservative guess of 3.5 million to 6 million; other estimates double this.

"Illegal immigration is one of the major problems we have in the country today," Walter Cronkite told the President in his farewell interview. He asked whether the latter would support the recommendation of the select commission to penalize US employers who hire illegals, and to provide a means of identification for the aliens so an employer could know who he is hiring.

The President didn't say.

"Well now," he said, "I'm very intrigued by a program that's been suggested by several border state governors and their counterparts in the Mexican states on the other side of the border. They have met together on this problem.We have to remember that we have a neighbor and a friendly nation on an almost 2,000 -mile border down there."

So what would he do? "They have an unemployment rate," he said, "that is far beyons anything -- a safety valve has to be there that we're calling it 'illegal immigration' right now. What these governors have come up with, and I'm very intrigued with it, is a proposal that we and the Mexican government get together and legalize this -- and grant visas -- because it is to our interest also that the safety valve is not shut off and that we might have a breaking of the stability south of the border."

This was a startling comment. The select commission, whose chairman was President Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame, reported that "the message is clear -- most US citizens believe that the half-open door of undocumented/illegal migration should be closed."

Mr. Reagan's approach was different. Continuing his reply in the Oval Office interview and discussing the ideal of an open border, he added:

"At the same time, that [easy entrance] would then make these people in our country -- an employer could not take advantage of them and work them at sweatshop wages and so forth under the threat of turning them in. They at the same time, then, would be paying taxes in this country for whatever they earned. They would be able to go legally back across the border, If they wanted to, and come back across. And I'm very intrigued with that. I'd like to talk about it and intend to, in April When I meet with President Lopez Portillo."

Newsmen sharply questioned White House press secretary James Brady about President Reagan's startling plans, but so far have not clothed them with any detail. The present conditions on the border seem to be getting worse. The Hesburgh commission reported, "As long as undocumented migration flouts US immigration law, its most devastating impact may be t he disrespect it breeds for Other US laws."

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