PARTNERS in business, but enemies at the border.
The complexity of the Mexico-United States relationship was underlined last week in the first binational meeting on immigration since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Mexican officials want the trading partnership to be a platform for closer cooperation on other issues, such as immigration.
``With this new stage in our bilateral relationship, we would hope to open a different chapter in the treatment of the subject of migration between the two countries,'' said Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Andres Rozental at the opening of the March 7 meeting in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
But until last week, the signals Mexico was getting from the Clinton administration on immigration were far from friendly.
Mexican politicians were incensed by the Feb. 3 announcement of what is seen as the ``militarization'' of the Mexico-US border. The US unveiled a two-year plan to spend $540 million to set up high-power stadium lights, add 1,010 Border Patrol agents, and build steel walls as part of a program to curb the flow of illegal migrants.
``What bothered us, given our NAFTA relationship, is that we hoped that before adopting these methods, the US government would have consulted with us,'' said Mexico's Foreign Minister Manuel Tello at a recent meeting with international reporters.
Mr. Tello criticized the plans to build more corrugated steel walls, known here as ``Steel Curtains,'' in El Paso and at other border crossing points. Two months ago, the US completed a 14-mile, 10-foot high wall spanning the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing in California.
``The walls don't do anything,'' Mr. Tello says. ``Mexicans are specialists in making holes. We have 500 years of practice, look at our silver mines. There's no way a wall of one to two miles will stop a Mexican from entering the US if he wants to.''
Border Patrol officials say the walls along high-traffic areas of the 2,000-mile border tend to make their job easier by channeling illegal migrants and drug traffickers into flatter terrain or narrow corridors.
Reducing border friction
In meetings last week described by one official as ``tense,'' US and Mexican officials managed to hammer out several minor agreements aimed at reducing border friction. One move, with NAFTA overtones, is Mexico's offer of free, renewable, 30-day visas to US and Canadian business people. Before, the one-year business visa cost several hundred dollars. And, the US promised to facilitate the issuance of border-crossing cards to Mexicans crossing into the US for shopping trips.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner also agreed to set up a citizens advisory committee to suggest ways to reduce abuse by Border Patrol agents, a complaint leveled by US and Mexican human rights groups. And the two sides agreed to conduct a binational study of migrant flows.
``At least we're not screaming at each other anymore,'' commented Ms. Meissner after the talks.
``It's not a new era in relations. But it is a change in attitude from Operation Blockade,'' says Jorge Bustamante, president of the College of the Northern Border, near Tijuana and Mexico's leading migration research institution.
Operation Blockade was a US Border Patrol program run last summer, whereby agents were stationed almost shoulder-to-shoulder and sealed off a section of the border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.
Mr. Bustamante says the joint study on migration may be important for reducing tension between the countries. ``We need to establish common credible data on migration flows. We are using different terms and definitions,'' he says.
His institution and the Population Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are beginning a research project analyzing immigration flows and the social and economic impact of migrants on Los Angeles. The study will utilize new research methods that should provide the most accurate estimate of how many Mexicans and Central Americans cross into the US illegally each year. Policymakers currently use rough estimates. The US Border Patrol made more than half-a-million apprehensions last year. But many illegal immigrants are caught and recaught several times.
``This is a breakthrough in the study of international migration,'' Bustamante says. ``We are sampling flows, using biological statistical analysis methods, which have been used to chart everything from whale population to migratory birds to human blood cells. The result is more credible data. Our hope is to bring some rationality to discussion of migration issues.''
Mexican officials say US hard-line immigration policies are predictable. Every time the US economy takes a nose dive, anti-Mexican sentiment rises. ``You see the xenophobia in California. There's a tendency for politicians to blame everything that goes wrong there on the Mexicans,'' Tello says.
``When US politicians resort to scapegoating, there's no political cost,'' Bustamante says. ``It's easy to blame Mexicans for drug trafficking, unemployment, the budget crisis, or whatever because there's no one to respond.''
He suggests the Mexican government should become allies with US churches, civic and human rights groups, and labor unions to create a US contingent that questions US politicians on immigration issues.
The Mexican government is not openly courting such US organizations yet. But it is taking steps to inform Mexicans in the US how to obtain citizenship and thereby have the right to vote in the next elections. This could create a new source of political pressure on US migration policymakers. According to Foreign Ministry sources, there are some 2 million Mexicans living legally in the US who haven't yet become US citizens. One common (erroneous) reason cited for holding on to Mexican citizenship is fear of losing property owned in Mexico. The Mexican consulates now have a campaign to inform people of their rights as US citizens.