Jorge G. Castañeda
Immigration's lost voices
THE COLLAPSE of the bipartisan immigration deal in the Senate last week sends a terrible message. As flawed as some considered the bill to be, it was certainly an improvement over the status quo for some very interested parties: the roughly 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. and the roughly 500,000 a year who will continue to go north for at least the next 10 years.
Their point of view — which is not the same as that of Latino community leaders in the United States or of business, labor or the Catholic Church — has not been as present in the debate as one could hope. Why? In part because it's unclear who is supposed to speak for them. Ideally it would be the governments of their countries — Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic — but for mystifying reasons, those countries seem to prefer silence to advocacy.
The Senate package was a sum of trade-offs. Some were new: border security and "triggers" (in which parts of the deal would only begin once the border was "secured") in exchange for the equivalent of amnesty, a path to citizenship for some in exchange for no path for others, a point system for future immigration in exchange for a significant increase in overall green card numbers.
Other parts of the deal were essentially the same as those under discussion since 2001, when I was Mexico's foreign minister. At that time, I gave a speech using the phrase "the whole enchilada." That meant essentially that there could be no conceivable immigration agreement between Mexico and the U.S., and no conceivable immigration reform within the U.S., that did not address two fundamental issues. The first was, of course, the A-question (involving amnesty for the then-9 million undocumented immigrants in the United States). The second was the "TWP question" (for Temporary Worker Program): how to adapt legality to reality, instead of the other way around, and ensure that legal entries going forward would be more numerous than illegal ones.
With time (and in order to placate the right wing), border enforcement became part of the sum of trade-offs — although without altering the previous, essential parameters: No A-word without TWP; no TWP without the A-word (although it could be as fig-leaved as anyone wanted). Many people at the time argued that asking for both was asking too much, either because they did not realize that one without the other was impossible or, disingenuously, because they were hoping to shoot down the whole deal.
This is where we remain today. An endless stream of proposed amendments from the right and the left during the last two weeks seems to have been designed to destroy the fragile balance of trade-offs put together by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House. Cutting the number of temporary workers in half, for example, from 400,000 (with escalation to 600,000) to a flat 200,000 was a way of making the bill so unattractive to Republicans and the business community that maybe they would just forget the whole thing. Similarly, the attempts by conservatives to endlessly complicate legalization was a way to force liberals to throw in the towel.
Perhaps this is the way legislative bodies work, in the U.S. and everywhere, now and always. Perhaps such partisanship is unavoidable in Congress. But outside the legislative chambers, where interest groups operate — that's where statesmanship should have come into play. Interested parties from the right and the left should have been working ceaselessly to make it clear that their preferred course was only possible along with the other side's preferred course, and that this imperfect solution was better than the status quo ante. But that didn't happen.
One argument that was not made strongly enough — but that should have been made by American foreign policy experts as well as by governments such as Mexico's — was the geopolitical case. Immigration is a domestic issue, of course, but it has many international ramifications.
One of these is that it can change the way Latin America views Washington, and as a result, it can help Washington counter the offensive of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the region. Very few things could make as much of a difference in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and the Caribbean as a generous, broad-minded and workable reform of immigration. It would show that the United States really wants to mend fences (rather than simply erect them).
For many senators, this is an irrelevant factor; they believe that immigration is a domestic matter and that the needs and desires of other countries should not be taken into account. But this is shortsighted. These are not the best of times for the United States in Latin America; allowing relations to deteriorate still further means playing directly into the Venezuelan president's hands. That, perhaps, is something worth pondering.