The Monitor's View

Calderón's back-to-Mexico plan

Who has the best immigration idea in the US? Mexico's president.

Call it a happy convergence. The US is finally cracking down on illegal immigration while Mexico finally has a president who's serious about making his country wealthy enough to retain its workers. It's a mutual effort worthy of a presidential campaign pitch.

Only it is Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president, who is making this point as he tours the United States this week – not the American candidates.

He's telling the US that it has every right to enforce its immigration laws (if done humanely) but the best way to keep Mexicans in Mexico and attract back the 11 million living in the US illegally is to further boost Mexico's economy.

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Mr. Calderón is well on his way to doing so, despite a looming US recession. Last year, Mexico saw its largest increase in new jobs, a big jump in its global competitiveness, a 25 percent rise in foreign investment, and an inflation rate lower than the US for the first time in history. Within three decades, some economists predict, Mexico could be the world's fifth largest economy and – get this – become a labor importer, not exporter.

Most of all, this effective deal-making president has been able to break the political logjam in Mexico's legislature and succeed in passing the first of many reforms – in tax policy, electoral laws, and public pensions. Now into his second year in office, Calderón commands a 66 percent approval rating after a squeaker election victory.

"It's possible to transform Mexico from a nation that loses its best people to migration into a nation capable of generating opportunity for Mexicans on their own soil," he told an audience Monday at Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in government.

Over the past decade, with Mexico's move to a true multiparty democracy, government social programs have helped reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty from 34 million to 14 million. But contributing to that decline in income inequality has been a fourfold increase in exports from the Mexican countryside under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

What's left to be done? Calderón plans to spend billions of the nation's oil wealth on agriculture, housing, and infrastructure, with the promise of universal healthcare. He plans to tie higher pay for teachers to better quality in education.

He's broached the touchy topic of private investment in the state-run oil company, Pemex, which has had declining output. And he's had success in his crackdown on organized crime and police corruption.

Drug-trafficking violence has left parts of the country almost ungovernable. Many drug kingpins remain on the loose. President Bush has offered $550 million to boost Calderón's law-enforcement drive. That aid package deserves to be passed by Congress. In fact, of all the US moves against illegal immigration, the biggest payoff would be in assisting Mexico in its own upward trajectory to prosperity.

Calderón has set down fundamental economic principles and advocates a free-trade zone for the Western Hemisphere to compete with Europe and Asia. The US needs to help a Mexican leader who openly admits: "I don't want to be a president whose people are leaving the country.

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