Mexican migration moves off fast track

Mexico's foreign minister quit last week following frustration over border issues.

Mexico's President Vicente Fox apparently realizes that his migration-policy desires must finally adjust to a post-Sept. 11 world.

The appointment of a new foreign minister last week, following the resignation of Jorge Castañeda, indicates a new, go-slow approach to border issues, say experts.

Since joining the Fox administration in 2001, Mr. Castañeda tried to forge a wide-ranging migration policy with the United States that would have opened the border to workers, trucks, and trade.

Instead, with the appointment of Luis Ernesto Derbez, finance minister and former World Bank technocrat, Mexico recognizes that it has moved down President George W. Bush's list of priorities and will have to take small steps toward its migration goals instead of reaching for the whole package.

"Now the need is to push for a migration accord from the bottom up," says Jorge Santibañez, president of Mexico's Northern Border College in Tijuana. "We can't hope for too much too soon."

Castañeda, a brilliant academic with a brash personality, initially won kudos for improving Mexico's stature on the world stage. Yet his refusal to move slowly on the sensitive migration deal put off US officials. Analysts say that Castañeda pushed too hard too early for a full guest-worker program, without taking into account that many Americans fear an influx of cheap laborers would rob them of jobs and cause a possible rise in social spending.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, who directs the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, makes the analogy that Bush would have encountered similar barriers if he tried to force Mexico to open its energy sector to US investors.

"It was a tactical error to approach the issue the way he did," he says. "At the end of the day, it is going to have to be the Bush administration that does the heavy lifting to win public support for any immigration accord."

When Mr. Fox took office in 2001, ending the 71-year grip on power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, officials on both sides of the Rio Grande hailed a new era in US-Mexico relations. Mr. Bush made his first trip outside the US to Fox's family ranch, pronounced the two men "amigos," and promised to pioneer bilateral accords ranging from free trade and energy sharing to boosting the war on drugs. Making it easier for Mexicans to travel north of the border for work, both leaders said, was a priority.

Two years later, however, their once-cozy courtship has turned into a cold marriage. Fox, for his part, largely stuck to the bargain, launching a successful war on drug trafficking, curtailing ties with Mexico's longtime ally Cuba, and talking up plans to open the country's energy sector to foreign investment, a hugely sensitive issue here.

But hopes for a wide-ranging migration accord disintegrated on Sept. 11 alongside the World Trade Towers.

Instead of opening the border, Bush locked it down. Other touchy issues like farm subsidies and sharing scarce water along the border took a back seat to US homeland security and the hunt for Al Qaeda.

In a sign of growing frustration here, Fox canceled an August visit to Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch after Texas executed a migrant, ignoring his pleas for clemency.

And when the two leaders met last October at a trade summit in Cabos San Lucas, Fox again tried to push for a migration deal, say officials who were present. But Bush would talk only of Iraq and his hopes that Mexico would use its UN Security Council vote to support his agenda.

In a country where people generally resent their richer, more powerful neighbor to the north, Mexicans are bitter at being neglected.

"There is a lot of frustration here," said one Fox administration official this week. "We are feeling ignored."

Supporters of the proposed migration accord say that Washington is making a mistake by not considering the plan Fox suggests, which supporters argue would benefit homeland security and the ailing US economy.

There are currently 8.5 million undocumented workers in the US, about half of them Mexican. Fox argues that a broad migration deal would save Washington billions of dollars spent annually policing the border and earn more by taxing registered migrant workers.

The current setup, they argue, promotes a black market system that helps to smuggle migrants in, get them false identification, and funnel their money back out. Groups such as Al Qaeda might use it to get a foothold on US soil.

Migration lobbyists argue that Bush would gain political capital, particularly with Hispanic voters, if he promoted the positive aspects of a migration package. And since midterm elections handed him congressional backing, he is in position to push the issue, they say.

"From a national security point of view, from a border security point of view, from an economic point of view, from a good politics point of view, this is low-hanging fruit if you only have the guts to pluck it," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington.

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