Mexican President Vicente Fox surely did not intend for his most recent trip to the United States to begin with such a bang. Or, to be precise, so much bang-bang.
However, a bloody shootout Tuesday outside Phoenix -- at almost the hour of Fox's arrival in that city -- put an exclamation point on the need to bring the flow of migrant workers across the Mexican border into the open, where it can take place legally and safely.
Mexican officials made no secret of the fact that Fox's visit to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas was intended to energize long-stalled talks on immigration issues with the Bush administration. Since those bilateral negotiations were derailed by post-9/11 concerns about border security, all three states have been struggling to find ways to deal with the continuing flow of migrants across their shared borders with Mexico.
Three bills are pending in Congress to create a guest-worker program, primarily for Mexican migrants. A bill by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain would allow illegal immigrants to apply for legal status after paying a $1,500 fine. Another by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn would grant Mexican migrant workers temporary guest-worker visas. Rep. Howard Berman, a North Hollywood Democrat, has cosponsored a bill that would streamline the process for importing agricultural workers from Mexico and allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers to earn legal residency in exchange for continued work on U.S. farms.
Fox hopes his cross-border lobbying will increase the momentum behind those bills and help build what he called, at a Phoenix press conference, "a framework that guarantees legal, safe and orderly migration."
The Mexican president did not need to remind the assembled news media that a dramatic example of how dangerous things had gotten had just played out on the main freeway between Phoenix and Tucson. Four people were killed and 27 illegal immigrants were arrested in a wild shootout that apparently stemmed from a rivalry between two gangs of coyotes -- people smugglers.
It was the worst border violence Arizona had seen since an upsurge in immigrant smuggling began there four years ago. That is when tougher enforcement around border cities pushed the flow of migrants from Mexico into ever more remote, and dangerous, parts of the Southwest. In the last year, 152 migrants have died trying to enter the U.S. across Arizona's deserts.
The dangers of that trek have dramatically increased the cost of being smuggled across the border too -- from $200 to $1,500. With the trafficking in human beings becoming more lucrative, individual coyotes are being replaced by organized gangs. And this new breed of coyotes is younger and meaner.
In my years of reporting along the border, it always troubled me how some Mexicans and even a few immigrants-rights activists romanticized coyotes as Robin Hood figures. What naivete. Coyotes are criminal scum, right down there with drug smugglers. They take advantage of desperate people, then abandon them when danger -- whether in the form of other criminals or the Border Patrol -- appears. One of the failures of U.S. border enforcement is that federal agencies rarely put as much effort into breaking up people-smuggling rings as they do into anti-drug enforcement.
Given the economic forces that lure poor Mexicans to risk so much to find work in this country, though, the flow of migrants will not stop. So it must be regulated.
To get the guest-worker program he wants, Fox can prove his bona fides by offering Mexico's full cooperation in breaking up smuggling rings along the border. He sent the right signal when he vowed in a speech to New Mexico's Legislature to "wage a great battle and finish off those criminals" who profit from people smuggling.
Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.