Mexicans Should Head Up the Legalization Line

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

As far as the U.S. Border Patrol is concerned, there are two kinds of illegal immigrants: Mexicans and OTMs. That's "other than Mexicans."

That long-standing distinction could help President Bush solve part of the country's illegal immigration problem by dealing, first and foremost, with Mexico. It's a provocative idea, opposed even by advocates of freer immigration. But it's so sensible, it deserves a try.

In preparation for a September summit meeting between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, a working group of top U.S. officials is discussing ways to grant legal status to 3 million to 4 million Mexicans living and working illegally in this country. In exchange, Mexico would cooperate more closely in helping control our mutual border.

The very idea of another "amnesty" for illegal immigrants from Mexico has angered a lot of people, from conservatives who don't like rewarding lawbreakers to nativists who want to stop all immigration. But even some advocates for immigrants' rights are upset, asking why only Mexicans should benefit from a legalization program akin to the amnesty that helped almost 3 million foreigners, only about half of them Mexican, under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Why, indeed?

Start with geography, which has given one of the world's richest nations a 2,000-mile-long border with a poor neighbor. A flow of workers from a place with few jobs to one with plenty of work is as natural as water flowing downhill.

Then there's the long history Mexico and the United States share along those borderlands. Most of the major cities, like San Diego and Los Angeles (which are both Spanish names), were founded by Mexicans and retain a Mexican ambience. And there's the small matter of a war that ended in 1848, with the modern U.S.-Mexico border drawn along terrain that is pretty much the same on both sides of the line.

Add the fact that the 1848 border was virtually wide open for the next 76 years. Congress didn't create the Border Patrol until 1924, and by then a million more Mexicans had arrived in states from California to Texas as refugees from a revolution in Mexico.

The Mexican Revolution--which broke out in 1910 and lasted, in parts of the country, until almost 1930--is another reason Mexico is the Great Exception to U.S. immigration policy. At the time, Mexico's population was about 10 million, and roughly 10% of those people wound up in the United States as a result of the violence.

Poverty remains endemic in Mexico, so a second Mexican revolution is not out of the question. Washington has a real national security interest in keeping open the safety valve that U.S. jobs provide for Mexico. That is, in part, what led to the bracero program during World War II, when Washington encouraged an organized labor migration from Mexico. It filled labor needs here and kept our southern flank peaceful.

Then there's the issue of demographics. Even as the U.S. economy grows, our working-age population is shrinking. Mexico, on the other hand, has a younger population, although it is no longer growing as fast as it was when the most recent surge of migration to the United States began in the 1970s.

That final, very important point often is overlooked in the many loud and emotional debates over immigration, whether the subject is a generous law like IRCA, a nativist reaction like California's Proposition 187 in 1994 or the Mexican migration plan Bush is considering now. The fact is, we may be getting ourselves all worked up over a problem that will pretty much solve itself in a decade or so. That is when most demographers expect Mexico's population growth to level off and the modernization of the Mexican economy to create enough jobs to keep most Mexican workers in their homeland.

So there are plenty of good reasons to make an exception for Mexico in U.S. immigration policy. But in the end, the best reason for Bush to work with Mexico on this controversial idea is because the timing may never be better: At last, there is a friendly government in Mexico that is open to cooperating with Washington on migration and border control.

As noted at the start of this article, the Border Patrol makes a distinction between Mexicans and OTMs because it has always had so many Mexicans to deal with. Currently, immigration experts figure Mexicans represent about half of the 6 million to 8 million illegal immigrants in this country. Which means if Bush cuts a deal with Mexico, we're halfway toward solving a problem that has bedeviled this country since 1965, when the bracero program ended.

Everyone needs to get over the idea that Mexicans don't deserve special treatment in this country. They do, only as migrants rather than immigrants. Once we get that distinction straight, we can focus more calmly and constructively on how many OTMs this nation of immigrants will need in the 21st century.

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