Mexico prods US on issue of illegals

Fox's bid to revive immigration amnesty results in promises by Bush to revisit the topic.

Three months ago, Mia Bella – a highly rated Italian restaurant in downtown Houston – hired an immigration lawyer to legalize its entire kitchen staff.

The trattoria was tired of waiting for an immigration agreement between the United States and Mexico, and had grown increasingly nervous about INS prying since Sept. 11.

"It's an investment," says manager Carlos Castillo, an El Salvador immigrant. "We're a small company that's interested in growing and we want these guys to be with us in the long run."

Like countless other restaurants across the nation, Mia Bella relies heavily on illegal immigrant labor. When it opened three years ago, managers filled dishwashing and busing jobs with Mexican immigrants because they worked for less money, were conscientious, and never complained. Now, the entire kitchen staff is Hispanic – including the head chef – and Mr. Castillo wants to keep it that way.

Thousands of miles and one country away, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox spent a soggy weekend wrestling with this very issue. The questions of how to fill the nation's lowest-paying jobs and what do with the millions of illegal Mexicans already living and working in the US have been simmering between the two presidents for over a year now.

They seemed to be on the verge of some sort of amnesty agreement just days before Sept. 11, 2001. But the terrorist attacks compelled Bush to tighten border control and focus on more pressing issues.

The dynamics of the close relationship between Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox has changed, too – strained by time, shifting agendas, and the demands of their distinct constituencies. And though the two have discussed the immigration issue on more than one occasion since Sept. 11, it seems clear that Bush wants to put the issue on hold.

As the Pacific coast of Mexico was pounded by a hurricane, this weekend's meeting between the two former governors at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was no exception.

Indeed, Bush already had a full plate of appointments even before meeting with Fox. He had to try to persuade countries, such as Russia and China, to support his UN resolution on Iraq. He also needed to discuss the recent revelation of nuclear weapons in North Korea with both South Korea and Japan.

When Bush did meet Fox, the issue of terrorism, too, dominated their conversation as the US tried to sway Mexico's support in the UN Security Council on the Iraq issue. On the issue of immigration, the two presidents failed to reach any agreement, though Bush promised to continue to work on the issue.

"It's hard to see where [immigration reform] fits in right now," says Daniel Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies in Washington. "It is being viewed more through a national-security lens than an economic lens, and that has become paramount."

But as immigration has become more sensitive, many businesses that employ illegal workers have become increasingly concerned with reform. The restaurant industry, for instance – as the nation's largest employer of immigrants – is pushing for a guest-worker program as well as granting legal status to illegal workers.

Lobbyists with the National Restaurant Association recently pleaded with Bush to deal with the immigration issue at the Mexico conference, pointing out that the industry estimates it will create 1.4 million new jobs by 2010.

"The restaurant industry has long been an entry point for immigrants pursing careers here in America. And our nation's immigration policy should not only secure our borders, but match willing employers with willing employees," says Lee Culpepper, of the National Restaurant Association in Washington.

A recent study by the Cato Institute found that migration from Mexico is driven by a mismatch between a rising demand for low-skilled labor in the US and a shrinking domestic supply of workers willing to fill those jobs.

"While politically, the war against terrorism makes it more difficult to talk about immigration reform, on a substantive level, there is no conflict," says Mr. Griswold.

He says it would bring a huge underground market into the open by "draining the swamp" of illegal activity surrounding illegal immigration. It would raise wages and working conditions for millions of low-skilled workers. And it would free governmental resources for the war on terror.

But immigration opponents contend that simply talking about amnesty for illegal immigrants – of which there an estimated 8 million living in the US – encourages more illegal immigration. And that is not welcome at a time of economic downturn.

"The Bush/Fox concept was really a holdover from the economic expansion generated by the late '90s. Well, that period is over," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "Even if you accept that we need large numbers of low-skilled workers to hold down wages, why should they be these workers? A billion people a year are trying to get into the United States, while Mexicans are just walking across the border," says Mr. Stein.

But even with mounting pressure by members of the business community, the issue is difficult for Bush to deal with right now as election time nears and Iraq continues to dominate his attention. But experts believe the president will want to focus the second half of his term on domestic affairs, and immigration reform may be part of that effort.

Back at the Italian restaurant in Houston, Castillo says he is hopeful that will happen. But in the meantime, Mia Bella lawyers are moving forward on their own.

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