Is Mexico still a nation?

A survey released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center found more than four in 10 Mexicans are willing to leave their country to live in the US. One in five would risk a dangerous, illegal border crossing. Most surprising, one in three college graduates wants to flee. Before Washington takes up immigration reform this fall, it needs to take a hard look at Mexico's disillusionment.

Already, one in eight adults born in Mexico now lives in the US. And the Mexican economy is kept afloat partially by an estimated $16 billion sent back by immigrants to relatives.

Such numbers reveal a people so fed up with Mexico's dysfunctional politics and stagnant economy that their nationalism is wilting. While more than half of Mexico's 106 million people are officially poor, the Pew survey found an inclination to migrate "evident across a broad swath" of the population.

This wide push to leave is probably now as strong as the pull of higher wages, social advancement, and family connections in the US. And yet, Mexican leaders remain in denial about this propensity for mass exodus.

All this spells trouble for proposals by President Bush and some in Congress to set up a temporary worker program as a way to reduce the burden of illegal migration. The Mexican demand for such US "guest" visas could be, by some estimates, half a million a year. Yet the numbers in the proposals fall far short of that. The US could hardly absorb such a large wave of humanity without further challenges to its civic stability.

In other words, a guest-worker plan is a false promise of ending the waves of illegal border crossings.

The challenges on America's southern flank are only getting worse. Arizona and New Mexico this month declared emergencies along their borders with Mexico, citing a rise in crime related to drug and people smuggling - and an inability by Washington to stem the violence. And the US ambassador to Mexico also criticized its leaders for not curbing border violence; he made a point by closing the consulate in Nuevo Laredo.

Just five years ago, Mexico had great hope of reform after the ouster of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI, which had governed since 1929. But President Vicente Fox's reform efforts have faltered. The nation's three main parties remain internally divided and unable to compromise. Decades of oil wealth have left people too willing to take handouts rather than accept the kind of taxation that creates citizens with a stake in government. With Mr. Fox a lame duck, Mexico is heading for a presidential election next July that could see another weak leader.

As dissatisfaction with politics and justice translates into Mexicans voting with their feet, the US needs to recognize that the "border issue" is much more of a "Mexico issue."

The US should further beef up border security, but also help Mexico regain national integrity. Legally hiring Mexicans is hardly a solution.

As it is doing with Africa, the US must peg better economic relations to better governance in Mexico, such as laws allowing referendums and run-offs for presidential elections. Rather than view such pressure as gringo meddling, the Mexican people might just welcome a challenge to their government. And think of staying put.

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