Mexican migration on US agenda

Bush and Fox agree to begin high-level talks to develop

The Fox-Bush souvenir stands were closing down. The last of the TV network trucks had pulled out of the main square.

"President Bush's coming here shows us he understands that, just like the rich need the workers to maintain their power, the US needs Mexico. And that's the basis of a more respectful relationship," says Juan Salvador Hernandez, a local bicycle repairman.

"I'm not left with a very good impression," counters Pedro Ruiz Gutierrez, a carpenter who traveled 100 miles to witness a meeting he thought held promise for a better future for himself and other Mexican laborers. Sitting on a bench outside the plaza fronting the home of President Fox's mother, Mr. Ruiz says, "I wanted to hear about amnesty [for Mexicans illegally in the US] and safer conditions for us who cross the border to work. Instead, it seems President Bush was more interested in showing American might on the other side of the world," a reference to Friday's US bombing raid on Iraq.

The park-bench analysis of Bush's visit reflects the diverse commentary that has been dominating the Mexican press. For some, there is satisfaction and hope that the seven-hour visit here will result in a more-equal relationship between the two countries. For them, the meeting showed "the world's only superpower" giving higher priority to Mexico and the rest of its southern neighbors.

But for others, there is disappointment and suspicion: disappointment that the big event was overshadowed by the new American president's first major international action - the Iraq bombing raid - and disappointment that the meeting yielded no solutions to ease conditions for Mexicans migrating north for work.

Some commentators point to how Bush emphasized the issue of energy in a press conference at Fox's San Cristobal ranch, in contrast to how the Mexican leader seemed to play it down, and they suspect Bush's interest in Mexico is really gaining greater access to the southern neighbor's oil and natural gas.

As Mexican journalist Marco Antonio Flota wrote facetiously in a humor column in Sunday's Reforma newspaper, why else did the US president nearly slip at the end of his visit and cry out "Viva Pemexico!" - a reference to the state-owned Mexican oil company Pemex? (Mr. Flota also said that Bush's decision, for security reasons, not to saddle up for a horse ride with Fox turned an envisioned "Marlboro summit" into a mere "Kodak party" - little more than conventional photo ops).

In a joint communique, the two presidents did indicate bigger things to come for the US-Mexico relationship than what could be accomplished in a one-day, informal session.

On immigration, Fox and Bush agreed to begin high-level negotiations - to be headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft on the US side, and Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda and Interior Minister Santiago Creel on the Mexican side - to develop "an orderly framework for migration."

The goal, the agreement states, will be a system of migration "that ensures humane treatment, legal security, and dignifies labor conditions."

Among ideas that could be examined are proposals for an expanded guest- worker program in the US and the granting of legal status to undocumented Mexicans now working in the US.

The commitment to further discussions marks the first time the two neighbors agreed to take up the broad immigration issue jointly, rather than treat it as a primarily domestic issue. The new turn on immigration comes just as both countries are striving to interpret mixed signals in migration patterns.

US Border Patrol officials are reporting a substantial drop in the numbers of of Mexicans crossing along traditional migration routes between the US-Mexico border. But at the same time, Mexican officials are sharply lowering national job-creation estimates for this year - from 900,000 to 750,000 - as a result of the downturn in the US economy. Such a drop would be expected to trigger higher migration pressures.

At the same time, would-be migrants report skyrocketing fees that polleros, or smugglers, are demanding to get them safely across the border.

Here in Guanajuato state, one of Mexico's biggest sources of migrants, regular migrants claim the going price has nearly doubled to $1,800 from the $1,000 being charged a year ago. Some of those who can't pay say they are staying in Mexico longer - in some cases to try to save up to pay the higher smuggling fee.

And locals speak of the ever-more inventive ruses smugglers are using to get their clients into the US undetected - also corroborating Border Patrol detection of illegal migrants soldered into car trunks or buried in trucks under piles of vegetables.

The news from the Mexican side backs up what migration and demographic experts here contend - that large-scale Mexican migration northward will continue for at least the next decade and a half. It is that position that supports the two countries' determination to address the issue of migration together and in new ways.

Fox said Saturday that the two presidents agreed to meet every six months to track progress on immigration.

Watching the sun set over San Cristobal, Carpenter Ruiz says he's not sure a binational working group on migration will deliver fast enough to make a difference for him.

"I've been across [the border] to work in Arizona five times, and the only reason I stopped is that it was getting much more dangerous to slip through," Ruiz says. "I was afraid of dying of thirst."

He says his disappointment over the little he sees coming out of the presidential meeting could encourage him to consider the northward trek again.

"It's as simple as knowing first-hand the difference between wages here and over there," Ruiz says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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