Fair Deal for Mexicans in US

Two years ago, Mexico offered a radical plan to President Bush: Legalize the estimated 4 million to 5 million Mexican migrants living illegally in the US, and Mexico would work harder to keep other citizens from illegally crossing the border.

Mr. Bush, however, shelved the idea after Sept. 11 because of concerns about terrorists and migration. Talks to address this daily invasion from across the Mexican border abruptly ended.

But the illegal flow continues. An estimated 400,000 Mexicans migrate to the US each year (and many go back). Hundreds die while crossing; in the meantime, the US deals with a host of problems related to having nearly 2 percent of its population living and working underground.

Now there's word Bush may want an immigration deal with Mexico just in time for him and the GOP to win Hispanic votes in the 2004 elections.

If Bush wants to get serious about this problem, he will need to offer an incentive to the illegal Mexicans in the US. Some ideas are already cooking in Congress. Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona is expected to sponsor a bill that would allow Mexicans already in the US to apply for guest-worker status, and then be put on a path to citizenship. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas has a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to work legally for three years as long as they were sponsored by their employers; the workers would not get amnesty, per se, but their applications to become permanent residents would be expedited.

Any mass legalization, however, would be seen as rewarding lawbreakers and be unfair to Mexicans who waited and entered the US legally. It might also encourage more to enter the US illegally in hopes of another amnesty in the future.

Any solution should require illegal migrants to return to Mexico, where they could be given a fast-track but legal way to reenter the US. This would not compromise US law, but would recognize the value of the migrant's job experience in the US.

Mexico's weak economy compounds the problem. President Vicente Fox has largely failed in many of his reforms. His political party suffered an embarrassing defeat in recent midterm elections. Some 800,000 Mexicans have lost their jobs since Mr. Fox was elected in 2000.

Fixing Mexico's third-world poverty so it doesn't drive people across a 2,000-mile border into a first-world economy is the ultimate answer. In the meantime, the US should not compromise its laws with an expedient solution to a huge immigration problem.

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