By Joe Rodriguez
It’s a good idea for quarreling couples to meet in neutral places and talk things over, maybe even kiss and make up. Bangkok would be nice.
That’s where Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox met earlier this month to, among other things, jump-start a new immigration deal between the United States and Mexico.
They hadn’t met in a year. Before Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorism knocked legal immigration off Bush’s agenda, the two presidents had made more cross-border trips than Mexican movie star Salma Hayek.
Now that Bush and Fox have reconciled, we need to face some realities on both sides of the political divide over immigration. We need to admit that we need these workers and that we need to get control of the border. We need a pipeline of labor from Mexico, one that will discourage illegal immigration once and for all. Here are some ideas:
AMNESTY: Why legalize an estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants? After all, didn’t they break the law, pure and simple? Yes, but the law is a result of dumb, shortsighted immigration policies. We need these laborers now and will need more in the future as the American labor force grows older and public education improves. There isn’t a single school principal in the country who wants students to become the best janitors or busboys in America.
GUEST WORKERS: Be careful. The last time we tried this with the old bracero program decades ago, thousands of them were deported prematurely and then they returned as illegal immigrants. Any guest worker program would have to protect American workers from unfair competition, fill labor shortages only where they exist, guarantee decent wages and workplace safety, and offer permanent residency or citizenship to some of them.
A SPECIAL DEAL WITH MEXICO: Amnesty and guest worker visas should apply to immigrants from any country, but there should be a more generous and long-range deal with Mexico. In the long run, our most important foreign relationship is with Mexico. We aren’t just neighbors. Our two nations are married by history, territory and blood, and there is no divorce.
Both men understand that special relationship. Bush is from the big, flat state of Texas, which shares a long history and border with Mexico. Fox’s native Guanajuato is a mining, ranching and industrial state with direct ties to the United States. Both men fancy themselves cowboys from regions that value entrepreneurship, rugged individualism and freedom from the federales.
Say what you will about their conservatism, both Bush and Fox understand that illegal immigrants practice a form of individualism as rugged as it gets, and that business always looks for labor at the right cost.
Mexican workers will continue to move north in search of jobs, and American investment dollars will continue to flow south in search of profits because that’s how it’s been for at least 150 years. For better or worse, we’re building a new North America with an even more integrated economy and bicultural towns and societies hundreds of miles inside each country.