As the U.S. Senate focuses this week on the issue of illegal immigration, Mexico has launched a campaign to convince Americans that it will do more to stop the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. and prevent violence along the border.
U.S. officials have praised the Mexican overtures, which include the adoption and publishing of a new immigration policy that calls for creation of economic and housing programs that would lure Mexican workers back home and an accord to better cooperate with U.S. officials on quickly responding to border crime.
While skeptics note that some of the promises clash with Mexico's long-held positions and actions, U.S. and Mexican officials say the moves reflect a rare public commitment by Mexican authorities to accept responsibility for the root causes of illegal immigration and take steps to prevent it.
"What we have accepted nationally is that we have responsibilities," said Silvia Hernandez, a Mexican senator and the chief author of the new written immigration policy. "Do we have homework to do? Yes. Do we have to revise our laws? Yes."
The Mexican government is working toward the same goal as the Bush administration: a guest-worker program that would regulate the undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. and the half-million Mexicans who cross the border illegally each year. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Monday whether to approve such a bill and send it to the full Senate.
Many congressional Republicans instead favor legislation approved in the House in December that focuses only on tougher border enforcement. That legislation would extend border fences, speed deportations, make illegal immigration a felony and crack down on those who employ illegal immigrants and assist them.
Bush, Fox to meet
The immigration topic will be front and center when President Bush and President Vicente Fox meet in a three-way summit Thursday and Friday in Cancun, Mexico, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Fox has made easier immigration for Mexican workers one of his primary goals before leaving office this year, and the two presidents are likely to try to show a united front in support of the guest-worker idea.
But Bush administration officials say they have made it clear that Mexico needs to show it is doing more to address the border and immigration problems.
"We've talked a lot about that," a senior Bush administration official said. "What the American people will be listening for . . . is measures to enhance protection of the border. We are looking for some concrete steps . . . that our partners in the hemisphere take the situation seriously."
One step was announced this month, when U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Mexican Interior Minister Carlos Abascal met in Texas to announce a plan to jointly respond to border crime. The plan calls for immediate communication and response, "bilateral coordination of investigations" and "appropriate patrolling of the border region."
Chertoff praised Mexico for its increased cooperation in recent years in law-enforcement matters.
Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said the new accord "will enable us to focus on the criminals we really need to worry about, while ensuring that the flow of legitimate tourism and commerce between our two countries can continue to grow."
Garza's praise for Mexico's efforts contrasts with his criticism of the government several months ago, when he questioned its commitment to battling border violence. Authorities are still concerned about a murderous turf war between drug gangs in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, as well as incidents such as a January incursion into the U.S. by drug traffickers in uniforms that some claimed belong to the Mexican army.
The Bush administration also has pressured Mexico to control the flow of illegal Central American immigrants, tens of thousands of whom pass through Mexico on their way to the U.S.
`Legal channels' for entry
The new Mexican immigration document, approved by Congress in February, says Mexico "should be responsible for guaranteeing that each person who decides to leave does so following legal channels" and that "it is necessary to create economic and social development that, among other positive effects, will encourage people to stay in Mexico." It also says that the success of a temporary-worker program depends on "development of incentives that encourage migrants to return to our country."
It proposes tax breaks for building houses back home in Mexico, "a bilateral medical insurance system to cover migrants and their relatives" and a program allowing Mexican workers in the U.S. to receive their pensions in Mexico.
The document was praised as groundbreaking by U.S. legislators who met with their Mexican counterparts in Mexico earlier this month.
"The document represents the first public acknowledgment that Mexico must accept responsibility for solving the immigration problem," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) wrote to their colleagues in Congress.
If and how Mexico translates the promises into deeds is uncertain, as is whether the Senate will pay heed. The document says Mexico "does not promote undocumented migration," but Fox regularly praises the immigrants as "heroes," and the country relies on money sent home by the immigrants, now estimated at $20 billion a year.
"Countries shouldn't be proud that their people migrate. They have to do things to create work," said Hernandez, the senator. "But there's another reason: The economy of the U.S. is the most powerful economy in the world. And even if [our economy] grew at 8 percent a year, the Americans would still need our workforce."