Immigration reform - a bilateral job

THE Reagan administration's recent decision to refuse to give Salvadorean refugees now in the United States an exemption from the new immigration law was closely scrutinized in Mexico. The US response to Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's poignant request was that a precedent could not be established that would give other nations a rationale for making similar pleas in the future. An exception for Salvadoreans would also have inflamed an already highly emotional reaction against the new law in Mexico and confirmed the widespread belief there that US immigration reform is anti-Mexican.

The public perception in Mexico, fueled by politicians and the press, is that the new law's real intention is to give Washington another tool to wring concessions from the Mexican government in areas of bilateral disagreement. The feeling there is that the threat of mass deportations of Mexican workers is imminent and will be used to humiliate Mexico, weaken its foreign policy, and undermine its role as a mediator in Central America.

Although brusque American attitudes often reinforce these beliefs, an actual policy of deportation does not seem likely, at least in the near future. US officials have assured the Mexican government that the US enforcement effort will be largely aimed at preventing US employers from hiring undocumented workers, not at deporting immigrants who are living here illegally. Also, many Mexicans may apply for legalization, cutting down on the number eligible for deportation.

Furthermore, politicians in Washington seem to lack the political will to launch massive deportation efforts. The Hispanic community is far stronger now than in 1954, when the last militarized roundup and deportations of Mexicans occurred.

Before the Simpson-Rodino bill was signed into law last November by President Ronald Reagan, the Mexican government said time and again that the immigration question was a bilateral problem. Yet neither side did much to sustain a constructive dialogue.

Mexico refused to discuss the pending bill except to make the standard request that its workers be treated fairly in the US. It also suggested that trade concessions to expand Mexico's access to US markets would do more to keep Mexicans at home than any punitive immigration bill.

The attitude in Mexico City was that the discussion in Congress over immigration reform was strictly an internal US matter with which the Mexican government could not interfere. Mexico has always maintained that taking its case to the American people is the kind of direct intervention in internal affairs that it demands the US avoid in Mexico. Its reluctance to become involved in the American debate also indicated contentment with the status quo and its ``escape valve'' for Mexico's chronic unemployment.

Mexico made two miscalculations with this hands-off strategy.

First, the US reciprocity expected by Mexico is unrealistic and naive. Mexico's restraint on Capitol Hill will not prevent Washington from meddling in Mexican internal affairs. A stronger, more assertive Mexican presence in the US would do more to deter US intervention in Mexican affairs than the present passive policy.

Second, Mexico miscalculated the depth of sentiment in the US to control illegal immigration. Mexico assumed that immigration reform, often defeated by Capitol Hill in the past, was not very likely. Many Americans were similarly surprised when the bill was passed by the 99th Congress.

The US also played a role in the lack of any dialogue preceding the bill's passage. Never did Congress or the administration advance any meaningful proposal to boost Mexican exports and thus help the Mexican economy. Yet Mexico has suffered from the resurgence of protectionism in the US. The only effort at ``cooperation'' from the American side was an attempt to persuade Mexican officials to repress internal migration to border regions where migrants pass easily into the US. The US wanted Mexico to beef up police enforcement on its side of the border. Mexico quite rightly refused even to discuss this proposal.

Mexico should move away from its self-defeating diplomacy. Refusing to defend its interests during discussion of the Simpson-Rodino bill in Congress and then denouncing it when enacted serves no purpose.

A new, more active Mexican policy could start by reaching out to the Mexican-American community and other sympathetic groups in the US, urging them to work with the many Mexican consulates here to ensure the rights of Mexicans under the new legislation.

This would be a very good way of making American policymakers understand that immigration is indeed a bilateral problem and must in the future be addressed jointly.

Adolfo Aguilar, a Mexican political analyst, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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