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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Mexico shares blame for amnesty failure

October 30, 2001

As illegal immigrants from Mexico watch their hopes for amnesty and eventual U.S. citizenship melt away in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, they can fix blame not just on the Arab terrorists who used loose immigration laws to further their foul cause, but also assign a bit to the Mexican government.

Before Sept. 11, President Bush and most of Congress were ready at least to seriously consider an amnesty program giving Mexican illegals clear precedence over undocumented immigrants from all other countries.

"Mexico is our good friend and neighbor," Bush said. "We ought to take care of its citizens first."

It didn't take long after the hijacking disasters for authorities to establish beyond doubt that several of the apparent hijackers entered this country illegally and that others overstayed student or visitor visas while setting up their coordinated operation.

This alone spurred quick calls for tightening America's borders with both Canada and Mexico, while virtually ending all talk of amnesty for those already here who arrived illegally without any background check.

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But the final nails driven in the amnesty coffin were probably the work of Mexican President Vicente Fox, some of his cabinet officers and other prominent Mexicans.

Not from them the instant support for America that came from countries like Canada, Great Britain and Israel, whose top officials said on Sept. 11 that "Today, we are all Americans."

Instead, Fox said immediately after the terrorists struck that "If we offer support to the United States, it is because we have already committed ourselves to international agreements … and the decisions of the U.N. Security Council." He later added that Mexico would not provide any assistance that violated "the pacific will of our country." With that kind of half-hearted support from alleged friends, who needs enemies?

Fox later traveled to Washington and New York in an effort to recoup some of the favored status he threatened with his first remarks. He insisted he never wavered in his support for the U.S. and his "good friend," President Bush.

But while there were many memorial services around the world for the victims of terror and while many countries observed moments of silence in their memory, there was nothing of the sort in Mexico.

Instead, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said Mexico should not be subservient to the U.S. And the prominent novelist Carlos Fuentes observed, "We are business partners with the United States, but in no way are we their lackeys."

The topper, though, came from Felipe Arizmendi Esquival, the Roman Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas in southern Mexico. America, he said in remarks that drew neither protests from Catholic laymen nor rebuke from his clerical superiors, has "generated so much violence to protect its economic interests, and now it is reaping what it has sowed."

In Mexico, there was no outcry of protest against those remarks, which implied that Esquival feels America deserved what it got. But there were many attacks in print and over the airwaves when Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Casteneda instantly reacted to the attacks by saying Mexico should be unstinting in support of the U.S.

Fox tried to downplay all that during his first visit post-terror visit with Bush.

"We will be side by side in your efforts to defeat terrorism in the world," he told a White House gathering.

And Casteneda called for "keeping to our agenda (on "regularizing" illegals) and moving it forward. We want to broaden, enhance and enlarge that agenda to include security issues, too."

But that backing and filling was too little and too late. Many Americans had already seen and noticed the lack of shock, indignation or even feeling that came from south of the border.

As a result, Fox and his cohorts can probably forget about the notion of Mexican illegals getting special priority in any immigration plan worked out by Congress. Instead, what's likely to come is some kind of "guest worker" program featuring temporary visas and strict new controls over where visa holders can go, what jobs they can hold and how long they can stay.

Millions of undocumented workers from Mexico have lived in and contributed to America for many years, almost half of them longtime residents of California. If they are justifiably disappointed, one place they can assign blame is to many leaders of their home country, in and out of government, whose support for America in its time of trauma has been half-hearted at best.

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