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Walking a fine line on wall

Mexico's president doesn't want to strain U.S. relations but wants to acknowledge the anger his people feel.

Published May 20, 2006

Mexican President Vicente Fox doesn't know which side of the wall to come down on.

If he criticizes the steel barrier that American officials want to lengthen along the U.S.-Mexico border, it could come between him and the ally he wants to encourage in the White House.

But if he doesn't speak against it, he risks letting it come between him and his own citizens.

Fox's conflicted attitudes become clear when comparing his public remarks.

When the House of Representatives voted last December to fund construction of a wall along the border with Mexico for another 700 miles, Fox couldn't have sounded more upset.

Calling the decision "shameful," he said: "Walls are a thing of the past century; they were overturned by their own citizens, who dismantled them in the search for liberty and democracy. It isn't possible to construct walls between two nations that are brothers, partners and neighbors."

But when President Bush this week proposed an extra 370 miles of triple fencing backed up by 6,000 National Guard troops, Fox's reaction was more muted. And not because the president's proposal was half the length of the wall the House had approved.

In a speech at a large American-owned manufacturing plant in Tijuana, close to the border, he told a gathering of Mexican workers that their employers should value their labor.

"Don't discriminate or look down on us," he said, directing his words at the U.S. Congress as it debates the thorny issue of immigration reform.

For Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who has staked his presidency on building closer ties with the United States, there is simply too much at stake right now for him to speak out as he once did. Nearing the end of his six-year term, he has only a few months left to secure his presidential legacy.

"Fox put so much on the front burner, and to this date he has nothing to show for it," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's former consul-general in New York.

Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new president July 2, and Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is in a tough fight. The PAN's main rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is seeking to push back the clock to the days when Mexico politically distanced itself from the United States.

Fox campaigned throughout his presidency for a guest worker program and some mechanism to allow the legalization of at least some of the 6-million undocumented Mexicans in this country.

His relationship with the Bush White House showed early promise, but came unstuck after Sept. 11, when trade and immigration issues fell off Washington's agenda, leaving Fox high and dry.

Meanwhile, post-Sept. 11 border worries only sped up construction of the Mexican wall. For many Mexicans, the wall has come to symbolize the hypocrisy of a rich neighbor unwilling to recognize the contribution of cheap, hard-working immigrant labor.

"It seems like a preposterous fantasy ... worthy of the kind of science fiction film made in the United States," wrote Sara Sefchovich, a columnist in El Universal, a Mexico City daily.

"Underneath, Mexicans psychologically clearly resent the wall's implications, racist and otherwise," said Bruce Bagley, a Mexico expert at the University of Miami who also teaches courses in Mexico.

U.S. officials respond that the wall, which varies in height from 10 to 14 feet, bears no comparison to other attempts to separate different populations.Thomas Shannon, head of the Latin America section of the State Department, defended the wall in the Mexican press saying it "would not be like the Berlin Wall."

Good diplomacy may be having some results. Over the past year, as calls for immigration reform increased, Fox's relationship with the White House has revived. Before Bush made his border fences speech Monday, he spoke by telephone with Fox to discuss its details.

That conversation, and other high-level discussions, appear to have convinced Mexican officials that Bush is serious about fighting for a comprehensive immigration reform package in Congress, one that would help illegal immigrants obtain residency and expand the seasonal worker program.

Fox and Bush face similarly difficult political challenges, analysts say. It's hard to know who has it harder.

Despite his tough language Monday, Bush said, "All the elements of the problem must be addressed together - or none of them will be solved at all."

But to get Congress to agree to such legislation, he must woo conservatives in the Republican Party who want the border militarized and illegal immigrants sent home.

Fox seems to understand this. Hence his more muted position this week, despite withering attacks in the press and from Lopez Obrador's opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party. Fox could only duck as Lopez Obrador accused him of being a pelele,' or dupe of the Americans.

"If there is an equilibrium in Congress that combines enhancement of border security with some form of guest worker and earned regularization for undocumented migrants, Fox can say he delivered," said Sarukhan, who is now a senior adviser to the election campaign of PAN candidate Felipe Calderon.

"It might not be a complete victory, but at least it would be a step in the right direction."

As Fox's heir, Calderon took a slightly more aggressive stance this week. Calderon said efforts to militarize the border and extend the wall were "mistaken," adding that "they only increase the social and human costs for migrants and only benefit criminal groups that make money on the hopes and suffering of those looking for an opportunity."

Tougher border security has proved to be only partially effective, analysts say. Despite increased border apprehensions, the number of people entering the country illegally does not appear to have gone down. Instead, immigrants tend to flock to more remote, unfenced border areas, including the Arizona desert, where the risk of dying from dehydration is high. Making it harder to cross only means bigger profits for professional smugglers, or "coyotes.''

Mexican officials also point to studies showing that Mexican migrants contribute more to the U.S. economy than they cost in public services - though in border areas of intense illegal migration, the stress on those services is much greater.

Another study shows that for each dollar that a Mexican sends home, $18 is spent in the United States.

"So who gets the lion's share of it?" asked Mexico's consul general in Miami, Jorge Lomonaco. With an estimated 500,000 Mexicans in Florida, that's a sizeable contribution.

If intensified border security passes Congress without any accompanying relief for migrant labor, it could spell doom for Fox's party in July. It could also result in a major setback for future U.S.-Mexico relations.

"It will be interpreted as a rebuff to a more rational immigration policy," said Bagley. "It will demonstrate that you can't count on the U.S. to do the right thing."

The biggest irony of all, almost everyone points out, is that it will likely be illegal immigrants who end up building the wall.

David Adams can be contacted at

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 06:36:48]

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