PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION : At Last, a Neighborly Approach : A U.S.-Mexican team will pool research data and, let's hope, do better than the plan to airlift deportees home.

Last week's summit meeting between President Clinton and Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo was so relentlessly upbeat that their many critics on both sides of the border--from the quintessential capitalist Ross Perot to Subcommander Marcos, the notorious Mexican guerrilla leader--must be wondering if the two presidents were talking about the same two countries and the same set of persistent problems that the rest of us keep hearing about.

Here inside the Beltway, the most controversial Mexico issue remains the North American Free Trade Agreement that the two nations inaugurated in January, 1994, and whether it is working out as promised. Both presidents fervently insist that it is.

In second place comes Clinton's unilateral decision last December to help bail out Mexico with $12.5 billion in loans after the Mexican economy went into an unexpected nose dive when Zedillo devalued the peso--although that issue may have been defused by the $700-million check Zedillo came bearing on this trip as a first repayment on the loans.

As often happens, the issue that the conventional political wisdom would have you believe is Topic A on the U.S.-Mexican agenda, the "hot-button" issue of illegal immigration, was relegated to third or fourth place, along with the drug trade and other border law-enforcement problems. But some encouraging progress was made on immigration, in both symbolic and substantive terms.

Let me get the symbolism out of the way first. Zedillo, in a noteworthy gesture for a Mexican political leader, agreed to an "experimental" border control program in the San Diego area. Habitual illegal border crossers no longer will automatically be bused to Tijuana; they will have the choice of being flown from U.S. soil to cities in the Mexican interior closer to their homes, where the trip back north presumably will be both harder and more expensive.

It sounds like an effective deterrent. Except it's been tried before and found lacking. Something similar was attempted in the 1940s, to discourage illegal border crossers during the bracero program that admitted temporary legal workers.

My favorite variation occurred in 1976 when U.S. immigration officials in Los Angeles tried deporting Mexicans and Central Americans to Mexico City aboard Western Airlines. In those days, that now-defunct carrier's marketing ploy was to serve complimentary champagne to every passenger. A news story I wrote on "champagne flights" for deportees, most of them poor peasants who had never flown on airplanes before much less sipped champagne, got big play in both countries. And, of course, history shows how utterly ineffective that deportation strategy was in making much of a dent on illegal immigration.

The real importance of the announcement in Washington is that the Mexicans agreed to go along with it, however passively. That is a significant gesture to the Clinton Administration, several Mexican sources told me. "We realize what a troublesome issue immigration is right now, not just for Clinton," one Mexican immigration expert told me. "This may help give the United States (government) some political cover, at least in the short term."

Which of course raises the question of what we do in the long term. Here there was also an important but little-noted agreement. For the first time in the many years they have argued with each other over illegal immigration, the United States and Mexico agreed to jointly study the issue, assigning that task to researchers in both countries who in the past have often argued past each other rather than actually talking to one another and comparing notes.

On the U.S. side, the research will be overseen by the Commission on Immigration Reform headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan. On the Mexican side, a leading role will be played by the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, which has done groundbreaking research work for several years on migration within Mexico to Tijuana and other border cities, and from there to the United States.

It is often said by restrictionists that illegal immigration has been studied enough, and what is needed now is tough-minded law enforcement. But that is no more than a panicky, knee-jerk response that leads to short-sighted, counterproductive and ultimately ineffective reactions like Proposition 187, or champagne flights home for deported peasants.

Once we study and quantify the movement of people back and forth across the Mexican border--many do return home voluntarily, it is often forgotten--we may well find that what is often perceived as a scary "problem" that requires Draconian "solutions" is no more than a manageable challenge. That challenge will be to regulate the migration (not immigration) of Mexican workers to jobs that U.S. citizens are simply not interested in doing.

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