'Amnesty' may trigger border rush

Bush's plan to legalize up to 2 million Mexican illegals creates buzz from N.Y.C. to Nuevo Laredo.

News that President Bush may allow as many as 2 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States to become permanent residents is ricocheting from the dusty pueblos of Mexico to the labyrinthine high rises of New York, where new arrivals flock to elude detection via anonymity.

So quickly has word spread that some border watchers predict the US will see a new surge of illegal immigration - even before border-crossers know the details of Mr. Bush's plan.

Though it's expected to be a guest-worker program that allows for eventual citizenship - rather than a full-fledged amnesty grant like the one in 1986 - that may not matter to Mexicans who want desperately to live and work openly in the US.

"I expect that there would be a short-term spike in immigration as people hear about the program and think, 'Maybe we can qualify if we get over the border now,' " says Kevin McCarthy, a social scientist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

Just outside the US, in Nuevo Laredo, the bus station bustles with activity. This is a hub for Mexicans coming north - including many who plan to cross illegally. Some get off buses here and figure out ways to cross the Rio Grande into Laredo. Others catch smaller buses to remote towns along the border to try the same thing.

About 10 men, women, and children - toting bundles and bags and Winnie the Pooh backpacks - huddle around a payphone at the station. They look about uneasily as they place the call, and one of the women says under her breath: "We can't trust anybody."

The group is trying to get to the United States. They won't speak about how they will get there or whether they've come for amnesty. But for sure, they know about it. Even without radios or newspapers, it's all anyone's talking about: The president of "Los Estados Unidos" wants to grant amnesty to many illegal Mexican immigrants.

Tale of two Lopezes

Take Ruben Lopez, who's sitting on a bench in front of the station, a blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He's just been deported from the US.

"I wasn't aware of the possibility of amnesty when the police arrested me," he says quietly, recalling a raid on the landscaping company in Waco, Texas, where he'd been working for three years.

He first heard about the new plan from fellow deportees on the ride back to Mexico. Before that, he'd planned to return to his home state of Queretaro in Mexico. Now he's waiting. If the guest-worker plan goes through, he says, "I might try to get back to the United States."

Socorro Lopez, meanwhile, is already in the United States, living with her husband and toddler son in New York's neighborhood of East Harlem. She hopes she can get legal status so she can visit her family in Mexico - and perhaps have them join her.

That desire, observers say, is widespread and could bring a long-term increase in Mexican immigrants. Over a period of months and years, as people are legalized, "They'll say, 'Well, I want to bring my family over,' " says Rand's Mr. McCarthy.

Ms. Lopez left Mexico and made it across the desert in 1997 - taking the risk so her husband could receive medical treatment she says was unavailable in Mexico. She left a five-year-old daughter back home - and hasn't visited for fear of being caught. The buzz of amnesty talk has surged through her neighborhood. "I don't know if it's true," she says. "Not one of us believes it," though they're all talking about it.

These few stories - in East Harlem and 1,500 miles away in Nuevo Laredo - paint a picture of immigrants' desires and the new plan's potential effects.

Indeed, once granted legal status, individuals have the right to petition for their relatives to join them. McCarthy estimates that each illegal immigrant from Mexico has an average of three family members he or she hopes to bring over.

"It's a situation of collective breath-holding," says Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif. "They ask themselves, 'Is this for real? Is it really going to happen?' They wonder if they'll be one of the lucky ones."

Statistics on the impact of amnesty or other open-door programs are scant and controversial.

Some studies suggest the rate of Mexican illegal immigration has stayed steady - at 200,000 to 300,000 a year - for much of the past two decades, and didn't vary much after the 1986 amnesty.

But one disputed study, which was never officially released by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, suggests a big uptick in Mexican immigration after 1986 - from 300,000 in 1987 to 360,000 in 1988 to 405,000 in 1989.

Missing: a get-tough element

The new plan, being crafted by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and others in the Bush administration, would not likely rival the 1986 deal in scope or initial numbers. Still, it would be one of the biggest legalization plans in recent history.

It would apply only to Mexicans - a point that's been criticized. And it would, for now, apply only to people in nonfarm industries, such as hotels, healthcare, and meatpacking. Congress is already considering a plan to expand a temporary farm-worker program that would allow illegals of all nationalities - not just Mexicans - to eventually get green cards. The administration says it will work with Congress on the farmworker plan.

There is one element, in particular, that could mean a big boost in the flow of immigrants. Unlike the 1986 deal, this plan doesn't appear to have many get-tough measures, such as employer sanctions for hiring illegals or big efforts to increase border patrol.

Indeed, some describe it as all carrot, no stick - and say having both elements is key to avoiding an influx of new immigrants.

"You've got to be talking about both of them in order for it to be a viable option," says Doris Meissner, INS commissioner under President Clinton. That's especially true, she says, "in terms of signals being sent to would-be migrants around the world." Without a get-tough element, people get the message that America's doors are open wide.

"Rumors [about amnesty] are flying," says Border Patrol agent Joe Gutierrez at San Diego Sector Headquarters. "And that does increase interest and activity by those at the border."

In some quarters, dismay

Groups concerned about the effects of large-scale immigration on American society worry that the Bush plan will open the floodgates.

"This couldn't help but increase the numbers [of new immigrants]," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "Amnesties increase migration momentum. Immigration creates more immigration."

Among groups that oppose high levels of immigration, a major concern is that many newcomers aren't learning English, opting instead to stick with their native languages. Spanish-speaking towns or enclaves only Balkanize America, they argue.

Other concerns are economic. Poorly educated immigrants usually get low-paying jobs, these groups note. Even if they are hard-working, they don't pay in taxes what they soak up in services such as healthcare and education, they argue.

Yet at least two things could act as a brake. In fact, they may have already kicked in, perhaps explaining a dip in apprehensions at the US-Mexico border.

First is the long-term, dramatic decline of fertility rates in Mexico. Over the past 30 years, the average Mexican woman has gone from bearing six children to three children in her lifetime.

As the trend continues, "We'll start to see the number of kids entering the workforce in Mexico get smaller," says Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington. This could lessen the overall desire to leave Mexico in hope of finding jobs in the US.

Second is the "Fox effect," a reference to Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox. "The Fox regime represents a real departure for Mexico," says McCarthy. "There is a real feeling of optimism." That, he says, could lessen the craving to get out of the country.

US officials hope to have the plan ready for Mr. Fox's visit to Washington in early September.

Sara Miller in New York and staff writer Daniel B. Wood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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