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    A Times Editorial

    U.S.-Mexico immigration policy

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001

    Mexican President Vicente Fox came to Washington last week and surprised President Bush with a challenge: Complete an agreement on immigration policy changes between the United States and Mexico by the end of the year. The Bush administration, which had raised expectations for an agreement in earlier discussions with Mexico, lowered expectations this time. The White House is correct to caution that Fox's timetable may not be realistic. Sweeping reforms are needed to end the hypocrisy that pervades the relationship between illegal Mexican workers and the American companies that employ them, but the United States' first overhaul of immigration policy in 15 years should be undertaken carefully.

    Fox proposes a broad amnesty for the roughly 3-million illegals currently working in the United States. President Bush has wisely rejected blanket amnesty, while hinting at support for an earned legalization process.

    While differing on the details, U.S. and Mexican leaders agree in principle on changes that would create a new immigration status to replace the current guest worker designation. Some Republicans in Congress want any change in the guest worker designation to await a broader overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But that is likely to take too long to suit Fox or Bush. Some Democrats and labor leaders are pushing for broader amnesty for those already in the country illegally, along with tougher sanctions for employers who mistreat workers. They oppose wider use of the current guest worker system, saying it opens workers to exploitation. Building more worker rights, such as whistle-blower protections and the ability to switch jobs, into a temporary worker structure would help curb those abuses.

    Beyond the legal issues, both presidents face political pressures at home. Mexico's lagging economy forces Fox to support his citizens who find work in the United States, legally or illegally, and send much of their money home. The slumping U.S. economy creates new difficulties for Bush. Broader immigration reforms were less controversial when our economy was booming and workers were hard to find. When Americans feel their jobs are threatened, anti-immigrant sentiment runs high. Moreover, advocates for immigrants from other parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia are right to argue that those workers should be given equal rights in any new program. Yet, if immigration reform is broadened to encompass more immigrants, it may become harder to sell.

    While broader legislation likely will not be ready until well into 2002, Congress should take advantage of several opportunities to endorse incremental reform in the meantime. The guest worker issue offers the best chance to strike a bipartisan consensus in favor of earned adjustment and to reject creating a permanent group of temporary second-class residents. Other worthy bills would protect unaccompanied minors who enter the country and allow immigrants to avoid deportation when a sponsor dies.

    Our deteriorating economy already has made immigration reform a more controversial issue than President Bush thought it would be when he first broached the subject with Fox. As negotiations between Bush and Fox go forward, their obvious friendship should help to discourage the sort of ugliness that has complicated earlier efforts to repair a system that affects millions of immigrants who do indispensable work in this country.

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