Perspective From the Other Side of the Border

Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda talks with Melissa Block about the Mexican view on the U.S. immigration debate. President Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox on Thursday in Cancun. Castaneda says Fox will be pushing for a guest-worker program for Mexicans.

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MICHELE NORRIS: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox will meet tomorrow and Friday in Cancun to discuss immigration. And the current U.S. debate is being closely followed in Mexico. Of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., about 60 percent of them are from Mexico. That number comes from the Pugh Hispanic Center, which also says that about five hundred thousand illegal immigrants cross into the U.S. from Mexico each year.

Jorge Castaneda was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. He now teaches at New York University, and spoke with us from our New York Bureau. Castaneda says in Cancun, President Fox will be pushing for some form of legalization for the Mexicans already in the U.S. illegally. Fox also wants a temporary worker program.

JORGE CASTANEDA: What's important for Mexico, of course, is that the numbers be right. In other words that this cover more or less the number of Mexicans who enter the United States every year without papers. Secondly, it has to be in working conditions, living conditions, housing conditions that are humane, that are secure, that are right for everybody. And thirdly it has to be a work, temporary worker program that addresses legitimate U.S. concerns on security, on border security. On the struggle against terrorism which Mexico has been cooperating with the U.S. on very forcefully for the last four or five years.

BLOCK: President Fox has talked about a shared responsibility on migration issues. What, on the Mexican side, is that government willing to do? What sorts of issues might it take on?

CASTANEDA: Well I think what we had all talked about is that if there is an agreement, and if is underlined, I stress it, Mexico must step up to the plate on regulating the additional flows beyond that which would be legalized. And that means Mexico has to be much more active in trying to discourage immigration from descending communities. Not with coercive measures, which wouldn't work anyway, but through establishing a series of incentives and disincentives in each community so that people don't leave. For example, welfare payments when the head of household is male and hasn't left. For example, scholarships for high school, for young people whose parents are both in the community.

BLOCK: One controversial idea that came up in the House version of the Immigration Bill that passed back in December was this 700-mile along fence or barrier of some kind that would be erected along the U.S.-Mexico border. That doesn't seem to be in the Senate versions that are floating around right now, but what is the view in Mexico of that wall, and specifically from the Mexican Government and President Fox?

CASTANEDA: Well there's been a very widespread reaction, and I would even say outrage in Mexico, and not only in Mexico. In Central America and the Caribbean and other South American countries over this idea of the wall. First of all 'cause it doesn't work. And secondly because what it achieves is what the wall in California along the San Diego, Tijuana, San Ysidro border achieved, which is to drive people to cross in through the desert and through much more hostile terrain which doesn't discourage them from coming. More people are coming now than ever before, but makes it much more dangerous for them to come and consequently the number of deaths at the border has increased quite dramatically. Roughly one Mexican per day dies crossing the border. And all the wall will do is increase that.

BLOCK: President Fox is retiring this year. He's at the end of his presidency. What's at stake for him in this debate, for him and for his eventual successor?

CASTANEDA: Well he, he is leaving office in December. The elections are on July 2nd. And clearly if he can cap his administration, if he can end it with an immigration agreement or major immigration reform in the United States along the lines of what he and President Bush agreed upon, this would be a huge success for Fox. And consequently a huge success for the candidates of continuity as opposed to a failure to reach an agreement which would feed the backlash against these closer policies with the United States, which some of the other candidates are pushing for.

BLOCK: If this fails, and Mexico doesn't get what it wants, would you expect that public opinion in Mexico would turn strongly anti-American?

CASTANEDA: Well it already has. I mean this is not new. There has been a lot of disappointment in relations with the U.S. and with President Bush since 2001. Iraq obviously was a major issue. The absence of an immigration agreement has been a major issue. Problems on the border have been a major issue. As in the rest of the world there is a lot of anti-American sentiment in Mexico today. But it would get much worse if instead of this being a success, instead of this working out well, without a real step forward, then I'm sure that anti- American feeling or sentiment in Mexico will become exacerbated as the elections get closer.

BLOCK: Mr. Casteneda thanks for being with us.

CASTANEDA: Thank you Melissa.

BLOCK: Jorge Castaneda is the former foreign minister of Mexico. He's now professor of politics and Latin American studies at New York University. He spoke with us from New York.

NORRIS: The immigration debate has generated a range of responses from our listeners. You can read a sampling and contribute your own thoughts at our website NPR.org.

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