U.S.-Mexico Migrant Deal Never a Possibility, Ex-Envoy Says

Times Staff Writer

An ambitious agreement pushed by President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox to legalize the status of illegal immigrants was doomed from the start, says a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Jeffrey Davidow, who has written a controversial book spanning his stint in Mexico from 1998 to 2002, says the plan to legalize the status of millions of Mexican immigrants raised expectations to impossible levels.

"There was a good deal of euphoria," he said in an interview Monday, referring to the leaders' first meeting, in February 2001 in Mexico. "There was a natural inclination of the new presidents to not be as aware as they later would become of the limits of their power."

By mid-2002, the deal lay in shambles.

In his book, "The Bear and the Porcupine," Davidow portrays the United States as a clumsy bear treading on its neighbor's sense of sovereignty, and Mexico as a hypersensitive porcupine attuned to insults, real or imagined.

Davidow describes Fox as a well-meaning but ineffective president whose term has been marked by a series of missteps and unfulfilled expectations. Fox's election in 2000 ended the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but his reform efforts have largely been blocked by the Mexican Congress.

"He was in a very difficult political situation. Maybe he's not the best politician in the world, but even if he were, I don't think he could have accomplished much more," Davidow said.

Whereas the Bush administration was vague on what an immigration deal might include, Fox pressed for a plan to "regularize" the status of millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. Temporary work permits also would have been increased and family visas made available, his government said.

"Fox made it known as early as August 2000, after he won the election but before he took office, that a sweeping immigration plan was his top priority," Davidow said. "Fox was pushing for a comprehensive deal, Bush was looking for a better way to do immigration. A full amnesty was never really on the table."

Bush's political consultants told him soon after his first meeting with Fox that his base of support in the U.S. Congress and among voters would never go along with a new immigration law that resembled amnesty for "lawbreakers" who had entered the country illegally.

"Many in Congress felt that such a deal would reward illegality while having little effect in reducing illegal immigration. There was also the political fear that legalizing immigrants would ultimately create future Democratic voters, not Republicans," Davidow said.

Opponents cited the 1986 amnesty law that gave about 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants legal status as permanent residents. Davidow said the rationale behind the law was that future would-be immigrants would be discouraged from crossing because of tighter security on both sides of the border and U.S. insistence that the amnesty would never be repeated. But illegal immigration only increased, Davidow said.

"Amnesty was a two-legged animal whose second leg never worked," he said.

Even after the Bush administration began to back away from a deal with Mexico, Fox persisted in demanding one. Talk of a bill slowly faded away in 2002 after the Fox administration refused to discuss the possibility of increasing the annual "green cards" for permanent resident status to 200,000 from 100,000.

Although officials in Fox's government later blamed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for diverting U.S. attention from a deal, Davidow said amnesty was dead even before the attacks.

Davidow, who is among the few career diplomats ever given the prestigious Mexico post, has been called "the accidental ambassador" because President Clinton's first choice, former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, failed to win Senate approval. He earned generally high marks from Mexican political observers for professionalism, genuine interest in Mexico and for not creating major controversies.

"The biggest obstacle is ignorance," Davidow says. "Each country knows little and understands less about its neighbor."

Davidow retired from the foreign service after leaving Mexico in mid-2002. He is president of the Institute of the Americas, a policy think tank on the campus of UC San Diego.


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A focus on Latin America


* Diplomatic posts: Jeffrey Davidow spent much of his three-decade career in the U.S. diplomatic corps focusing on Latin America. He served as ambassador to Zambia from 1988 to 1990, to Venezuela from 1993 to 1996, and to Mexico from 1998 to 2002.

* Think tank: Davidow, who retired from the foreign service in 2002, is president of the Institute of the Americas, a policy think tank on the campus of UC San Diego.

* Personal: Davidow, who is fluent in Spanish, earned a bachelor's degree in American history from the University of Massachusetts and a master's in American studies from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of a number of articles and a book on the process of negotiations.


Sources: State Department, Los Angeles Times

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