In the aftermath of Hurricane Vicente

Although Hurricane Vicente - Mexican President Vicente Fox - hit Washington more than two weeks ago, movers and shakers in our nation's capital are still dealing with a flurry of immigration policy proposals. In his whirlwind visit, Fox, the former president of Coca-Cola's Mexico subsidiary, showed that he understands how our political system works by lobbying President Bush, Congress and grassroots America for a new bilateral immigration agreement.

Shortly after arriving in Washington for a state visit, Fox surprised Bush by challenging the U.S. to reach an agreement with Mexico by the end of this year. While declaring that "there is no more important relationship" than with Mexico, Bush didn't embrace Fox's ambitious deadline on an extremely complex policy issue.

At the end of the visit, the two presidents agreed on a "realistic approach to migration" that respects "the human dignity of all migrants, regardless of their (legal) status," and Bush admitted that he has "a lot more selling to do" in the U.S. Congress. Does he ever!

There are very few Washington politicians who favor unrealistic "blanket amnesty" or "open borders" proposals. As the Wall Street Journal noted, "When you have a country of 97 million people with a per capita GDP (gross domestic product) of $5,780 sharing 2,000 miles of border with a country whose people have a per capita GDP of $33,900, you are going to get flows from the former (Mexico) to the latter (the U.S.), whether you agree to them or not. Throw in an Immigration and Naturalization Service that makes it virtually impossible for anyone to process their papers legally and of course you get what we have: millions of people here working hard and honestly, but breaking the law every day they stay."

Fox has lauded Mexican migrants as "national heroes" because they send home some $8 billion a year, Mexico's third largest source of revenue after petroleum and tourism. But President Bush and the federal government have a responsibility to enforce U.S. immigration laws - until and unless they're changed by Congress - and any proposal to "legalize" more than three million illegal Mexicans is doomed to failure.

As an alternative, I favor a new "guest worker" program, where immigrants would be issued temporary work visas for limited periods of time, after which they would be required to return to their native countries. There is no way we should reward people for breaking our laws. Also, as I've seen all too frequently in local courts, illegal immigration contributes heavily to illicit drug trafficking in northern Nevada.

There is no question that Bush and Fox genuinely like one another. Nevertheless, there is a political component to their cordial relationship. For the Spanish-speaking Bush, it's a pitch for Hispanic votes. He garnered nearly 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas and would like to attract a larger percentage of Hispanic voters to the Republican Party.

The immediate problem is that the rapidly increasing Hispanic population - now more than 15 percent of Nevada residents - isn't yet translating its numbers into political power because too many of them know nothing about our political system, and don't speak English.

Also, by concentrating on Mexico and Mexicans, Bush risks alienating other large blocs of potential Hispanic voters, like Cubans, Puerto Ricans and South Americans. There was a huge outcry from those groups when the administration floated its "blanket amnesty" idea for illegal Mexicans.

Bush must be careful about treating all of Latin America - a very diverse continent - as an extension of Mexico. I remember when his father, in an attempt to curry favor with Hispanic voters, proposed statehood for Puerto Rico, an issue that doesn't resonate with most Latinos. In fact, Puerto Ricans don't even agree on whether their island should be a state; they're split right down the middle between statehood and retaining their current commonwealth status, which grants them many American citizenship benefits without the federal tax obligations.

For Fox, his cordial relationship with the U.S. president is helping him at home as he attempts to reform Mexico's corrupt political system, to end the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas state and to open up Mexico's heavily bureaucratized economy to international free market forces. Fox well recognizes the importance of remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. and the fact that some 30 percent of Mexico's economy depends on exports to the U.S. Cross-border trade has increased exponentially to $250 billion per year since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, benefiting both countries.

I agree with Washington pundit Mort Kondracke, who believes that we could have a "sensible, humane immigration policy" by next year "unless President Bush and the Democrats ruin things by getting into a divisive bidding war for Hispanic votes." Congress and the president can do the right thing by legalizing temporary workers who play by our rules and obey our laws, while cracking down on illegal immigration.

TERRORISM: Although I'm in Seattle today, I'll write about my experiences with international terrorism next Sunday in an effort to deal with our current national tragedy. Meanwhile, I pray for the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and their families.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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