Time to Step Up to the Plate

Time to Step Up to the PlateFeb. 20, 2006 issue – Later this month the U.S. Senate is likely to begin one of its most frustrating and recurrent exercises—and at the same time one of its most important deliberations, at least for nations in the Western Hemisphere. The Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees are about to take up the crucial, excruciating issue of immigration, long after they should have, but better late than never.The Senate will debate three initiatives of a very different nature. First up is the so-called Sensenbrenner bill, already passed by the House of Representatives. Among other hateful features, the legislation seeks to build more than 1,000 kilometers of fences and walls along the U.S.-Mexican border, makes unauthorized entry into the United States a felony and penalizes anyone aiding or abetting illegal immigrants. Senators will also discuss the Kyl-Cornyn Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act, which seeks to strengthen border security and establish a temporary-worker program that does not include any path to U.S. residency or citizenship. The bill would, in other words, keep in the shadows somewhere near 10 million unauthorized Latin American immigrants in the United States. Last, the Senate will consider a bill presented last year by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain which includes a guest-worker program, strengthens border security and calls for Mexican cooperation. Most important, the bill contemplates different mechanisms that would allow Latin Americans currently in the United States without papers to enter the temporary-worker program and eventually legalize their status without having to go home first. This is what’s been called an earned-amnesty provision: by providing proof of paying taxes, having no criminal record and incurring fines and fees totaling approximately $2,000, unauthorized aliens could regularize their status after six years. These are all essential matters for millions of Latin Americans. For years, emigration to the United States was limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. Today practically every country in the hemisphere is sending nationals north. Brazil, a country of immigration, is now one of emigration. Central America, Ecuador and Peru since the 1980s, Colombia and Venezuela since the 1990s—all have significant proportions of their populations (up to 10 percent) living and working en el norte.Five years ago, Mexican President Vicente Fox tried to convince George W. Bush that something had to be done about this situation before a conservative, perhaps even xenophobic backlash in the United States began to drastically complicate its relations with Latin America. For a series of reasons, no progress has been made since Fox’s visit to Washington on the eve of September 11, 2001; in the meantime matters have, as Fox predicted, gotten much worse. Border tensions between the United States and Mexico have grown; Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s wall has rightly provoked anger and indignation in Mexico and Central America, and more unauthorized immigrants than ever are entering the United States.There seem to be three requisites for real progress on immigration. First, Bush has to actively and firmly support the McCain-Kennedy bill. Only a bipartisan approach can work. Bush will never get a guest-worker program without Democratic support, and he’ll never get Democratic support unless the White House accepts some arrangement to legalize unauthorized immigrants already in the United States.Second, Mexico and the United States have to be sensitive to domestic political considerations in both countries. No immigration deal will be possible north of the border without addressing security matters; south of the border, none will win Mexican cooperation if it ignores the issue of the nearly 5 million Mexican citizens without papers in the United States.Finally, Mexico has to step up to the plate on what Fox has called the "shared responsibility on migration issues." The best imaginable immigration reform will not eliminate the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America overnight. Mexico has to assume responsibility for regulating this traffic, which means more than sealing off its southern border and arresting would-be emigrants. The government could double welfare payments to households whose male heads stay home, or threaten to revoke land rights after years of absence in rural communities. Fox has always said he is willing to bite the bullet on this matter, but the Bush administration has never taken him up on it. One window of opportunity closed shut on 9/11; another is opening this month. Let’s hope it’s taken advantage of this time around.

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