Magazine article The National Interest

End of an Affair? Immigration, Security and the U.S.-Mexican Relationship

Magazine article The National Interest

End of an Affair? Immigration, Security and the U.S.-Mexican Relationship

Article excerpt

THEY SEEMED made for each other. Taking office side by side as "compassionate conservatives", George W. Bush and Vicente Fox were united by more than a hankering for cowboy boots and ranching. President Bush was eager to demonstrate his familiarity with at least one foreign country and to utter entire phrases in Spanish. Intimacy with Vicente Fox also promised Latino votes, a blooming constituency (and possibly a decisive one in the 2004 election). Besides, "San Vicente" was the first feel-good story of the new millennium, conquering the 71-year crusty authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and sweeping into office on a wave of reform sentiment. For Fox, Bush held countless charms, none more shimmering than the hope of an immigration accord that could relieve pressure on the economy, charm Mexico's human rights and nationalist constituencies, and endear Fox to migrants who are influential with voters back home.

The two former governors, their political interests converging, thus seemed poised to grasp the nettle of Mexican migration. In February 2001 Fox got to host the new U.S. President's first foreign trip, a bouquet previously reserved for Canada. Bush brought handsome gifts to Fox's ranch in Guanajuato: immigration was placed atop the bilateral agenda, an honor hitherto reserved for drugs. Bush also proposed a top-level bilateral migration commission comprised of Secretary of State Cohn Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and their Mexican counterparts, Jorge Castaneda and Santiago Creel. The offer was accepted and the commission was empowered to work out a bilateral migration agreement.

The Mexicans soon showered the fledgling Bush Administration with memoranda advocating and defining the "regularization" of Mexican immigration: more green cards, amnesty of illegals, a temporary worker program, border safety. Meanwhile, Fox barnstormed key Latino constituencies, calling on Washington to "get real", and Castaneda told a cheering AFL-CIO that President Bush must accept "the whole enchilada [i.e., including amnesty] or nothing."

The promise of an immigration accord, in turn, served partisan U.S. aspirations. It appealed to low-wage businesses wishing to "match willing workers with willing employers", to use Bush's phrase. An impressive coalition in favor of a Mexican immigration agreement took shape, as a bidding war between Democrats and Republicans commenced. The "chips" in that war were illegal Latino aliens to be certified for full or "partial" amnesty. Both parties recognized that a Mexican immigration deal had the support of all the usual immigration "players", including ethnic lobbies and labor unions (the latter now counting on immigrant workers for most of its new recruits).

Bush brought the tall stranger home to meet the folks at his first White House state dinner. In that one dizzying week before September 11, 2001, Fox got to address a joint session of Congress, join the President on a swing through the Midwest, and bask in a flood of American political and media attention unprecedented for a Latin American head of state. The Mexicans were swept off their feet. However, party elders sitting on Republican back benches, scandalized by talk of a new amnesty for Mexican immigrants, were already frowning at this liaison. Their disapproval would break with full force after September 11.

Left at the Altar

SEPTEMBER 11 intruded rudely on the budding U.S.-Mexican romance like an uninvited witch at a wedding. To many Americans, immigration, which had seemed only to dish out gentle and inexpensive gardeners and nannies, suddenly appeared dangerous. Immigration was now viewed through the somber lens of homeland security, as vulnerability stared at us from every airport, bridge, chemical and nuclear plant, water system, computer terminal, salad bar and unopened envelope. Even benign Canada, across a far less problemetic border, held horrors. …

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