To the snickerers it was a cynical political ploy by the Bush administration to court Mexican-American voters. The yawners believed the history and culture will kill any effort that does not include a massive jobs program all over Mexico. Most also believe an amnesty will be counterproductive, encouraging more illegal traffic than controlling it.
The more I thought about the amnesty idea, the more I almost hyperventilated. Have you ever tried to snicker and yawn at the same time?
Most Americans know almost nothing about the reality of Mexican-American immigration. Our opinions are shaped by images of peasants scurrying across the desert or young men jumping a fence at Tijuana. The national debate is often framed by politicians at election time or by ethnocentric opportunists just a bit shy of being outright racists.
Here are some of the things I have learned about Mexican-American cross-border traffic.
The border is an imaginary line that has little historical meaning and almost no cultural impact for Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who live nearby. Their ancestors were there long before the border. Their culture and their family ties overwhelm it. For many, it is nothing more than a social and economic nuisance.
There are other facts of geography that are important, too. Major Mexican cities on the border have a strong economic draw. Mexicali is the capital of Baja California, with more than 1 million people. Calexico and El Centro are suburbs of Mexicali, not the other way around.
Although the general standard of living is much lower than in the United States, any city of 1 million people has an impact on the area around it. It also has a substantial middle and upper class. In its own right, it is a draw to rural people looking for a better life, whether or not they travel on to the United States.
Immigration is about jobs and making enough money to feed your family. The most important force driving immigration is the plight of Mexico's poor. Work is the goal of almost every man who emigrates to the north.
Mexican farm workers are absolutely necessary to California agriculture, our biggest export industry. The lack of jobs in rural Mexico drives the migration. Thousands of Mexicans cross the border daily at sunrise to work in Imperial Valley fields. They toil in 100-degree-plus heat almost every day. They send money home to their wives and children. Many do not want to emigrate to the United States but would rather work near their families, if jobs existed.
Mexican-Americans who have settled in this country, either illegally or through guest worker programs, are good citizens and diligent workers. I have seen dozens of couples who live in towns near the border, driving from their work in the fields together. The woman is often dressed in a hat with a scarf wrapped around her head to ward off bees and other insects found in the fields. They both work hard at difficult and, at times, dangerous jobs.
A small-town couple working together in the fields can make a decent living. Many own their own homes, pay taxes, raise fine children who go on to college and, with professional training, enter the middle class. They achieve the American dream just like all other immigrant groups that have proceeded them.
Mexican immigration into the United States will not slow until Mexicans believe they can build a better life for themselves and their children in Mexico. The real tragedy of that immigration is it robs Mexico of many of its brightest and most industrious young people.
Like it or not, the United States uses this resource to its advantage. It is the worst kind of colonialism, taking a resource from what amounts to a colony and giving back little or nothing in return.
Things will not change until Mexico develops a massive effort to create viable industries and good-paying jobs in the Mexican interior. It will never do so on its own because it has neither the capital nor the managerial class to mount such an effort.
Unless the two presidents can marry an amnesty with a job creation effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan, you can forget about controlling Mexican immigration.
An immigration official made an interesting point as we talked about the issue.
"You know, there wasn't a problem until we made it a problem. There has always been cross-border traffic. It's like prohibition; the minute we tried to do something about it, we made it a lot worse."
"Yeah," I said, "like the drug war."
GERALD PLESSNER is a a resident of Arcadia and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org