Out Of The Shadows

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The last time Mexico tried invading the U.S., in 1916, Pancho Villa led a doomed horseback adventure that was quickly snuffed out by Uncle Sam. So you had to admire the stealthy 21st century raid Mexico launched last week: the way the invaders all wore business suits, the way they struck one by one at inland targets like Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, the fact that they came not to conquer but to lobby--and all with the tacit encouragement of the American President. As the Mexican Foreign Minister and three of his country's leading Senators traveled the U.S. recruiting allies, it fell to Mexican President Vicente Fox to disclose what he and George W. Bush have been discussing in secret for months: the most sweeping change in U.S.-Mexican relations in nearly a century and the biggest overhaul of federal immigration law in 15 years. By the time Fox and Bush meet in the first week of September, they hope to have worked out the details of a graduated amnesty program for millions of Mexicans who are living illegally in the U.S. "It's time to get real," Fox said last week in Milwaukee to the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. "The time has come for us to turn migration from a source of friction into a shared responsibility that is mutually beneficial."

Nearly 10 years after NAFTA wiped out virtually all trade barriers between the U.S. and Mexico, the most regulated legal commodity on the border is people. Mexicans who want to move to the U.S. find a door that's been dead-bolted--but cheesed with countless tiny holes. About 400,000 Mexicans cross over every morning to shop or visit; yet they cannot work or stay more than a few days. Several thousand try to sneak across each night, but most are caught by the border patrol; those who make it disappear into the underground economy. A tiny number apply for visas to live and work in America legally, but most are rejected. U.S. policy treats Mexican immigrants the same way it treats people from everywhere else: get in line--unless you have connections or unique skills. Fox and Bush want to change that arrangement and recognize the special relationship between neighbors, starting with a plan to legalize most of the Mexicans who are already in the U.S.

That's a tribute to Bush's willingness to take on his party's anti-immigration wing--and to the reality of two entwined economies. In the past 15 years, entire sectors of American business have become dependent on low-wage illegal laborers to wash dishes, pour foundations, plant impatiens and butcher cattle. And the exodus has had a stranger impact south of the border: rural Mexico has hollowed out so dramatically that many villages are void of men and the agrarian economy is failing. But the workers up north are sending so much money back home--$8 billion a year by most estimates--that these "remittances" are now the fourth largest source of income. Both governments pretend that 3 million illegal Mexicans live in the States; both know the real number is closer to 4.5 million. And so for the past several months, lawyers and diplomats from both sides have been trying to hammer out a new deal. The talks began after Fox played host to Bush at his ranch in San Cristobal in February.

The plan would take three giant steps. First, it would pave a road toward legal status for Mexicans who are already living and working in the U.S. Despite its name, "amnesty" for aliens has never been as simple as it is for draft dodgers or tax evaders. It isn't quick or easy; immigrants must earn it the old-fashioned way, through months and sometimes years of waiting and working. Both sides envision a new system in which Mexicans would spend several years in the amnesty program before getting their green cards. Eventually, that would allow millions of people to stop living in the shadows.

The second step is arcane but crucial: remove Mexico and Canada from the annual U.S. ceiling on immigration. Today Mexicans and Canadians have to stand in line with all other immigrants when applying to work in the States legally--and usually come up short. The U.S. granted more than 100,000 work visas to foreigners in 2000; only 4,480 went to Mexicans. Bush and Fox believe that with Europe integrating and China becoming more competitive, the Americas can't afford such inflexibility anymore.

The third and perhaps most controversial part of the plan is a proposal to revise the U.S. "guest-worker" program and allow as many as 300,000 Mexicans to work in industries like meat packing, construction and landscaping--and then return home. That's a sweetener for Republicans, whose financial backers favor such programs. Democrats say guest-worker plans are an invitation to exploit foreign workers and keep them in low-paid, nonunion jobs. "No one," says Mark Anderson of the food and allied service trade union, "wants to use the real words for guest workers--indentured servitude." Labor unions and Democrats are sure to fight any guest-worker arrangement that lacks full labor protections, and Mexican officials have taken the unusual step of allying themselves with U.S. labor on this issue--the only true daylight between the Bush and Fox positions. But the Mexican officials are keeping their eyes on the prize: everywhere they went during their American road show last week, they made it clear that without a general amnesty program of some kind, there could be no guest-worker arrangement. "Allow me to put it in a more colorful or colloquial way," said Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castaneda, one of the plan's chief architects. "It's either the whole enchilada or nothing."

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