MEXICO CITY — Samuel Huntington is a distinguished scholar who always addresses important and timely issues. In his article on Mexican immigration to the United States published in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Huntington reveals serious concerns about his country, especially that he sees it divided into two cultures and two languages. This apprehension can't be dismissed. Huntington loves his country, something I understand because I love mine, too, and would not like to see it divided in such a way.
Huntington points to a series of distinctive traits that, he says, have characterized Mexican immigration and have made it different from previous migrations to the US. They include the fact that the immigrants are coming from a contiguous territory; the scale of the migratory flow; its illegal nature; its persistence or continuity over time; and, finally, its history - by which he means the fact that a majority of immigrants are concentrated in what were once Mexican territories, later annexed by the US. Huntington claims Mexican immigrants still feel they have a legitimate claim to these areas.
Although one can argue with many of his details and statistics, these are all real issues. And they lead, in his view, to one fundamental trend: Mexican immigrants are not assimilating into the American melting pot the way other ethnic groups have in the past. If this is even partly true, then Huntington's concern for the future is warranted.
The heart of his argument is this: Because they are failing to assimilate - are not being successfully absorbed into American society as previous immigrant groups have been - Mexicans in the US could be condemned to live there indefinitely as a separate, permanent, second-class subgroup. And no group, of course, wants to be a perpetual, unassimilated minority; not in the US, and not anywhere else.
But despite Huntington's pessimism, the reality is that such an outcome is not inevitable for Mexicans in the US.
US history includes several examples - such as the Irish - in which broad assimilation occurred without immigrants' losing their traditions or links to their native country.
Why can't it be the same for Mexicans? It is true that many previous immigrant groups didn't face a language barrier, and that they probably didn't face racism as acute as Mexicans today face. But that does not mean it cannot happen.
The most relevant criticism of Huntington's argument is that it describes a situation he characterizes as undesirable while making no effort to offer a solution. That, in part, is why his argument has been so controversial and why he's faced charges of racism - unfairly in my opinion. Huntington is a conservative, but he is not a racist.
Mexican immigration does have distinctive traits that make difficult, if not impossible, the automatic assimilation that characterized previous waves of migrants. This is not a question of lack of will; it is a matter of history.
That is why the US must make a major effort to construct a new type of assimilation that is both voluntary and effective. The legalization of Mexican workers and their families, a constant and energetic battle to fight discrimination against Mexicans, and a concerted effort to ease the road to citizenship are some of the essential features of such an effort.
Mexico has helped with this process in the recent past by allowing dual nationality. President Vicente Fox has also pushed for an agreement with the US that would humanize, regularize, and legalize the overall migratory status of Mexican immigrants.
But Mexicans also have a major challenge ahead: We must change our traditional attitudes toward emigration and toward Mexicans in the US, no longer viewing them as exiles who have given up on their homeland, who have thrown in the towel. As Fox has said, we have to consider our compatriots in the US as part of a Mexican nation in the cultural and ethnic sense, and continue to push for improvements in their lives.
At the same time, we must distinguish between those who come and go, and those who stay in the US. The latter increasingly want to acquire US citizenship, and there is no reason why they shouldn't. Those who wish to come and go should be able to do so - securely and legally - through a bilateral immigration agreement.
These are the issues we will have to address and that Americans are beginning to confront. Whatever else one can say about Huntington's article, it certainly has contributed to this necessary debate in Mexico and in the US.
• Jorge Castañeda, foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 until 2003, is a candidate in Mexico's 2006 presidential election. This commentary originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. ©2004 The Los Angeles Times.