A storm of criticism forced the White House last week to play down talk of a new amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants. But a conditional amnesty, cloaked in a euphemism, remains on a complex list of immigration issues being negotiated by the two countries.
Some form of amnesty--which both nations now call "regularization"--has been on the agenda of unprecedented U.S.-Mexico talks for the last three months. Negotiators are trying to complete a framework by the time President Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, meet in Washington in September.
Both governments stress that no high-level decisions have been made on specific policy recommendations. But four key issues are known to be under consideration:
* The "regularization" of a yet-to-be-determined portion of the estimated 3-million-plus illegal Mexican immigrants already in the United States. Mexican authorities are willing to let these immigrants qualify only for practical benefits such as Social Security numbers and driver's licenses, rather than the eventual promise of full U.S. citizenship.
* A new guest-worker program for Mexicans to fill agricultural and other jobs in the United States. A key dilemma: Would participants be eligible for permanent residency and full workplace rights--such as the ability to change jobs and join unions?
* Increased U.S.-Mexican law enforcement cooperation along the border. Efforts would make the area safer and target increasingly sophisticated smuggling syndicates that aid border-jumpers.
* Financial assistance to bolster those impoverished regions of Mexico that send large numbers of migrants north. Key details on this--such as whether the United States, Mexico or both countries would provide the funds--remain to be determined.
Mexico's negotiating stance is carefully crafted to appeal to key U.S. constituencies--agribusiness and other industries that want temporary workers, for instance--as well as Latino advocates and union activists who seek a broad legalization of unlawful immigrants.
Last week, the marketing-savvy Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, barnstormed the U.S. Midwest pushing his plan. His urbane foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, charmed union activists and other sympathetic audiences in Southern California.
"It is time to get real," Fox told a group of Latino activists in Milwaukee. "Instead of criminalizing labor migration, both countries should work together to regulate it based on common sense and the rule of law."
In addition to the issues the U.S. has agreed to negotiate, Mexico wants its citizens to be exempted from worldwide ceilings on visas for foreigners who seek to come and live in the United States. Fox has suggested lifting the quotas for both Mexicans and Canadians as a kind of companion to North American free trade.
The Mexican side has upped the ante by insisting that it will not sign any binational accord lacking some "regularization" component to aid illegal immigrants. Foreign Minister Castaneda has quipped, "It's the whole enchilada or nothing."
On Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the administration was considering a way to "regularize the flow of people back and forth." But he categorically rejected a "blanket amnesty." In fact, both sides agree that any form of amnesty would be a limited one, based on time in the United States and other ties to this country.
The Bush administration, recognizing the volatile nature of the issue to part of its Republican base, has said little about the details.
Generally, the immigration issue has split conservative Republicans into two camps: enthusiasts like Bush and former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, and on the other side, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and others who are wary of letting in more people.
An amnesty under any name would inevitably alienate some Republicans. But analysts cited two potential political gains for the president. The U.S.-Mexico initiative could help draw more members of the growing Latino electorate to the GOP. And a bilateral pact would stand as an early foreign policy triumph for a president whose expertise in the international arena has been questioned.
To date, though, the result of the administration's comparative silence has been the somewhat jarring spectacle of Mexico City's viewpoint often publicly overshadowing Washington's.
"The Mexicans have been more organized in terms of knowing what they want, and knowing how to ask for it, than we have been," said Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "They've articulated the package and they have never departed from that package."
The incendiary nature of the word "amnesty"--rewarding potentially millions who have broken U.S. immigration law--has led to a conscious semantic struggle. Both governments have begun speaking about regularization as a right that illegal immigrants would have to earn through years of residence and other criteria: family ties here, work history, community participation and other demonstrations of U.S. roots.
The most crucial variable figures to be the cutoff date; no one who arrived after that date would qualify for regularization. Setting a cutoff date several years in the past would be intended in part to prevent a rush of Mexicans to the border.
Anti-amnesty forces say the linguistic subterfuge doesn't fool them.
"There's a lot of euphemisms out there," said Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an ardent foe of any new amnesty. "Whether it's an immediate amnesty or an amnesty after five years, it's still an amnesty."
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed wide-ranging amnesty legislation, eventually resulting in legal status for about 2.7 million people, almost three-quarters of them Mexicans and half California residents. Applicants had to show a minimum of five years of continuous U.S. residence or a period of at least 90 days employment as farm workers.
Whatever emerges from these negotiations, the talks remain a novel attempt to craft a bilateral solution to a problem historically handled by U.S. policymakers alone.
"We've always played the sovereignty card," noted Papademetriou, the immigration expert. "Not only have we never done it this way before, but we've never thought comprehensively about immigration before."
The idea has created some unlikely political bedfellows. Latino activists and immigrant advocates--generally not GOP stalwarts--have gushed about Bush's adoption of a binational approach that they have long championed, with little hope for success.
"It's really quite an extraordinary set of negotiations that are pointing to a 21st century immigration policy," said Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant group.
The potential breakthrough is another recognition that the pro-immigration coalition has expanded well beyond its activist base to include broad sectors of industry, church groups and organized labor. The importance of Mexican workers now extends well beyond the fields, since they have deeply penetrated the service sector, meatpacking and other industries nationwide. Politically, Bush has long tried to build bonds with Latino voters.
The negotiations have enraged some Republicans and others who want to see immigration curbed, not expanded, and who are aghast at the prospect of Mexico helping to craft the terms.
On the Democratic side, lawmakers have already attacked the notion of an amnesty only for Mexicans--who, according to estimates, make up almost half of an undocumented population now thought to number more than 8 million throughout the country.
Any plan signed by Bush and Fox would have to be approved by Congress in a battle that both sides anticipate would be a spirited one.
"To negotiate with a foreign country about our own immigration policy is ridiculous," said Bill King, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service official who ran the 1980s amnesty program in the western United States. "The last thing we need is a new amnesty."