Amnesty for Mexicans Borders on Futility

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

One good thing can be said about the trial balloon floated by the Bush administration last week regarding amnesty for an estimated 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. It was shot down so fast that no one is likely to again take that well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed idea very seriously.

There was not a lot of detail in the amnesty proposal leaked to the press by sources close to the U.S.-Mexico working group. This panel is discussing ways to bring order to an increasingly chaotic and dangerous border with Mexico.

But immigration is such a hot-button issue that the mere idea of another amnesty for illegal immigrants--following the amnesty granted 3 million foreigners in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986--is politically radioactive. A small leak was all it took to stir up a hornets' nest, and the immediate reaction was negative not just among the usual anti-immigration suspects, but even among President Bush's key allies in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, for one, made it clear that he doesn't like the idea of rewarding people many Americans regard as lawbreakers.

Now, I happen to think the laws those Mexican workers broke to get here are unrealistic and unworkable--the modern-day equivalent of this country's ill-fated experiment with Prohibition early last century. But I can understand why Republicans like Lott might be dubious about amnesty.

First, the original IRCA amnesty was a difficult political compromise that took years to reach. And it was sold as a one-time-only step to legalize otherwise honest, hard-working people who had been in the country for years and established lives here. We now do need to broaden that 1986 amnesty to include several thousand people who fell between the bureaucratic cracks. But trying to sell Congress--much less the U.S.--on another blanket amnesty is political suicide. It's a deal-breaker that could sink Bush's efforts to reach an immigration accord with Mexico.

Besides, it can't make Lott very happy that most of the immigrants who benefited from the IRCA amnesty--which was signed into law by no less a Republican icon than Ronald Reagan--are now becoming U.S. citizens and voting for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. Why should he and other Republicans run the risk of creating a new batch of Democratic voters by approving a second amnesty?

However, they don't have to run that risk. In fact, it's a big mistake to assume all those Mexicans are eager to become U.S. citizens. Forget for a moment the recent trend of Mexicans and other immigrants who benefited from the 1986 amnesty becoming new citizens and voting for Democrats. That is largely a backlash against the immigrant-bashing of shortsighted Republican pols like former California Gov. Pete Wilson and demagogues like right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan.

Before the anti-immigrant binge of the early 1990s, Mexicans were notorious among U.S. immigrant groups for being slow to become citizens. Many never did, holding onto their "green cards"--legal residency permits--for life.

But then they had no reason to become U.S. citizens. Most were single men or women of working age with families in Mexico. They sent money home regularly, returned for holiday visits and eventually returned to Mexico after building a nest egg by working here.

That historic pattern or circular migration changed when the Clinton administration, in a panicky reaction to California's Proposition 187, virtually militarized the U.S.-Mexico border. More fences, lights and Border Patrol agents made it harder, and much more dangerous, for Mexicans to move back and forth across the frontier. Many migrants opted to become immigrants, and even to bring families here. And, thanks to the opportunity provided by the IRCA amnesty, they became citizens to protect themselves from the likes of Wilson at the voting booth.

It may come as a surprise to those Americans who arrogantly assume that everyone in the world wants to be like us, and live among us, but many Mexicans prefer their homeland. And they might well resume the old circular migration pattern if given the chance. That is why no one on the Mexican government's side of the immigration working group is seriously talking about a blanket amnesty.

Now that the amnesty trial balloon has been burst, the focus should be on finding more realistic ways of regulating the flow of Mexicans into this country. Like a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans to fill U.S. jobs where they are needed, but also gives them the rights that U.S. workers have, including the freedom to join labor unions.

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