GWEN IFILL: President Vicente Fox's US trip this week was designed to be a friendly getting-to-know-you visit among friends north of the border. But just as he arrived here, a policy debate over illegal immigration broke to the surface in Washington. At issue: An internal Bush administration report suggesting that the US explore granting permanent legal status to more than three million Mexicans living here illegally.
The proposal is just one part of a Bush administration effort to address border safety and immigration concerns with Mexico. And although it is not yet a formal recommendation, the idea instantly touched nerves-- diplomatic, economic, and political. President Fox, speaking in Milwaukee today at the annual meeting of the civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, appealed to the US to relax immigration restrictions that can cost lives.
PRESIDENT VICENTE FOX, Mexico: Current policies have failed to reduce undocumented migration from Mexico, and instead have fostered a dangerous and even deadly migration black market.
GWEN IFILL: In February, Mexico was President Bush's first foreign destination. Increasing legal immigration was among the first agenda items at that friendly summit meeting.
PRESIDENT VICENTE FOX (Translated): We have spoken on migration from the viewpoint of our countrymen that are in the United States, and we have spoken about the possibilities of working on agreements of temporary legal works and employment.
GWEN IFILL: Fox supports expanding a guest worker program that allows Mexican citizens to work in the US legally and temporarily. But some members of Congress, which would have to approve the idea, have already expressed reservations about allowing people who broke laws to get here to stay.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think that just a mass amnesty is probably not the way to go, and I don't believe that's what the administration is thinking about. But what they are thinking about is trying to work with the new reform president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, and come up with a reasonable way to have movement back and forth across our border, like we do with Canada. But I think we need to do it with some forethought and carefully, and not do it in such a way that rewards illegal activity.
GWEN IFILL: But some Republicans say the time may have come to relax cross-border restrictions.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I believe that these people are living here, and it's a recognition of reality. They are working here. I believe that we have an opportunity with the new president of Mexico to work out arrangements where people can come to the United States and work and return to Mexico. And I believe that it's a recognition that we have a neighbor that we had better get closer relations with, and do the best we can to help their economy as well.
GWEN IFILL: There are political concerns as well. White House officials, led by political director Karl Rove, are actively in search of ways to win Latino voters. Mexicans are the largest Hispanic group in the United States. Their numbers grew by 53 percent in the 1990s, a fact not lost on the Mexican president.
PRESIDENT VICENTE FOX: The prospects for a better life on both sides of our common border will be enhanced by what we do and will be diminished by what we fail to do. The time to act is now.
GWEN IFILL: Presidents Fox and Bush are scheduled to meet in Washington this September.
GWEN IFILL: For more we turn to Cecilia Munoz, Vice President for Policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization; George Borjas, a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, he is also the author of "Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy"; and Eric Schmitt, the immigration and census reporter for the New York Times.
GWEN IFILL: Cecilia Munoz, you heard President Fox speak today in Milwaukee. Why is the idea of legalizing illegal immigrants who are already living here making their status legal, why is that a good idea?
CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, because we know there are significant numbers of people living and working and paying taxes in the United States, raising their families here. They're clearly needed in our economy. It makes sense to bring them out of the shadows and give them full access to their rights. It's a longstanding community. It's a sizable community. It's a community whose employers tell us they want them to be able to stay permanently. It's really in our best interest to make sure that we bring them out of the shadows.
GWEN IFILL: George Borjas, is that in our best interest?
GEORGE BORJAS: Well there's a number of issues that people aren't quite thinking about properly yet, I believe. For example, people keep talking about an amnesty or some kind of a regularization program for Mexican illegal immigrants. In fact, Mexican immigrants only compose half of the illegal immigrant population in the US, and the question is what is going to happen to the other three million aliens not from Mexico? Are we going to forget their plight? I don't think so. So we should be really talking about an amnesty for at least 6 million illegal immigrants. That's the more realistic question to be facing right now.
In addition, is it really fair to the millions of people who are now outside the country waiting for their chance to enter the country legally? For example, right now the State Department is actually processing the applications of Filipinos who have applied for legal entry 22 years ago. That seems to be a very strange way to make immigration policy. And last but not least, how will this amnesty influence the thinking of those who want to migrate to the US? There are many people who want to come here. Another amnesty would just increase incentives for more illegal immigrants to enter the country.
GWEN IFILL: Lets give Ms. Munoz an opportunity to respond: First to the notion that if you begin to localize the folks who are here, you are basically legalizing lawbreakers.
CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, we've had a legalization program in the past. We had in the 1986 immigration law allowed for legalization of three million people as it turned out. It did not open the floodgates as many of its opponents suggested. In fact we had a steady stream before that law passed and a steady stream of undocumented immigrants after that law passed. Immigrants come for jobs. That seems to be the real determining factor here. And so the legalization program that we experienced didn't really increase undocumented migration.
I want to address the question, the very real question that Mr. Borjas raises about fairness. We agree that if we're talking about legalization for people who are here, working, contributing, that we need to open that up beyond simply Mexicans and that the question of doing right by the folks who are in our workforce, who are needed in our workforce, is not mutually exclusive with the question of making sure that the legal immigration system also moves a little faster for family immigrants. And, in fact, President Fox today talked about legalizing the folks who were here in the workforce and he talked about finding ways to benefit those who are waiting in long lines to reunite with family members in this country.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Borjas, do you agree with the notion that the 1986 blanket amnesty worked?
GEORGE BORJAS: It worked in the sense that it provided amnesty to the illegal population living here at the time. It did not work obviously in terms of its key objective, which was to stem the flow of illegal immigrants at that point. At that time there was a double provision in the law. One was to basically provide amnesty to illegals already here and the second was for an employer sanctions program to sort of stem the flow of illegal immigrants. We now have at least 6 million more illegal immigrants, so 13 years or 14 years after the '87 Act passed, we're back in the same boat with at least six million illegal immigrants to be taken care of at this point.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Eric Schmitt. Let me bring you into this debate. Where did this report come from, what is its genesis, and what are the possibilities that it's going to go anywhere?
ERIC SCHMITT: The genesis, Gwen, of this report is really this new relationship that we've seen between President Fox in Mexico and President Bush of the United States. As your report indicated, they met in President Fox's ranch in February, determined to strike a new relationship between Mexico and the United States, essentially elevating what had been largely a domestic issue for the United States to the level of an international issue.
President Fox is seeking to improve the economy of Mexico. He's trying to improve the conditions for Mexicans both in his country and those that are living in the United States. President Bush, on the other hand, is also looking to help a neighbor, one that he has a personal affinity for. These are two men who actually have known each other for some time when they were both governors of their respective states. This is one area of foreign policy that George Bush actually knows something about.
GWEN IFILL: Is this about politics? Obviously we mentioned that this administration is interested in the Hispanic vote -- but also the notion that they were kind of floating this idea of maybe pulling back from it, maybe it will be part of what's announced in September, maybe it won't?
ERIC SCHMITT: Certainly politics is shot through this proposal. I mean, you look at what the working group that both President Fox and President Bush set up on the American side, it's headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Their aides have been working for the last several weeks to come up with a proposal that eventually could be decided hopefully and announced perhaps by the leaders when they meet in Washington in early September.
So the reason we're hearing about this now is that there is suddenly pressure coming to bear because of the deadline. They have to act on some of these provisions. We've been seeing some of the initiatives on border safety. That's relatively easy to do. The two countries can agree on that -- much harder to go ahead with this guest worker program which would include some kind of legalization program because it has to go through Congress. Right now both mainly Republicans are divided over this and, but any plan that goes through would have to have Democratic support.
GWEN IFILL: Make the distinction for us between the debate over allowing undocumented workers to remain here legally and opening the doors for more immigration in the future.
ERIC SCHMITT: Good point. There are two things we're talking about here. An expanded guest worker program would essentially streamline and expand an existing program that is quite cumbersome now. It would allow workers to come in, work temporarily. Agriculture sectors but also service sectors largely dependent on illegal immigrant labor in hotels and restaurants, for instance. So there would be some kind of requirement. These people would have to have... meet certain standards, work a certain number of weeks or even months before they could be even eligible. The same goes with the people who are already here illegally. They would have to meet a certain eligibility standard before they would be considered to get in line for permanent residency, essentially to get a green card.
GWEN IFILL: Cecilia Munoz, now that some labor unions at least, at least the AFL-CIO are beginning to support this notion, do you think it is politically feasible at this point? That is it going to happen.
CECILIA MUNOZ: I absolutely think it's politically feasible. It's not just a labor movement but key sectors of the business community, the Catholic Church, the Latino community. There's widespread support for this. This really gives President Bush an opportunity really to stand up to the pretty small but pretty vocal anti-immigrant wing of his party. That's a wing that has been pushing Latino voters, immigrant voters into the arms of the Democrats.
GWEN IFILL: How open will that door get to be especially if there are concerns as those voiced by Mr. Borjas that opening the door too far is going to end up backfiring on itself?
CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, I think in general there's widespread support for the notion that if we do this in a limited way, in a manageable way and we're talking about the folks who are in the work force paying taxes, making a real contribution, my sense is that there's likely to be widespread support for that.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Borjas, is this manageable? Is this something -- can you craft a guest worker program or can you craft a legalization program for the undocumented that will work?
GEORGE BORJAS: No, there is a presumption that guest workers will come here to the US in search of better jobs, to do jobs that Americans don't want as the saying goes, somehow collect their check at the end of the day and then go back home. There's a secret among immigration researchers that is widely known, which is that there's nothing more permanent than a guest worker.
The fact of the matter is employers want to import workers but in fact we're importing people, people who are going to come into the country, establish roots, have families, which by the way their children will be US citizens and will tend to stay. I mean, just look at the German experience with the Turkish population and so on. The fact of the matter is that a guest worker program is going to be a permanent, a major change in immigration policy regarding permanent immigration as opposed to this temporary migration we're talking about.
GWEN IFILL: What about the people who are already here, who have already established families and communities and just lack legal status?
GEORGE BORJAS: Then the question again becomes, if you give them legal status, what would that do to the incentives for people who are now waiting legally in other countries for a chance to enter the country legally. Also we just want to restrict the amnesty to Mexicans? That seems highly unfair. So if we're going to go down that route, we really should be start to go talk right now about a generalized amnesty for six to ten million illegal immigrants.
GWEN IFILL: Cecilia Munoz, what about the point that he made a moment ago, that if you open the door to illegal immigrants that there will be no reason for anyone to try to get here legally?
CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, I think there are long lines of people in fact waiting to get here legally to reunite with family members and some... Again, the real factor driving this is jobs. This is about people pursuing the American dream and coming and filling an important niche in our labor force where again both the labor movement and their employers are telling us they're very much needed here. What's really happening is that our laws are not in sync with our economic realities. They sort of make the case we don't want people to come and that's why we have strong reinforcement provisions when we're kind of winking and nodding at the fact that we know there's room for them in this economy. That's created an unreasonable situation where people are risking their lives and dying trying to get to those jobs in the United States.
I think what President Fox and President Bush are talking about is changing that whole framework so that we finally have laws that are in sync with the economic realities -- legalizing the folks who have already made their way here and already found a place in our workforce and are paying taxes and making a contribution, and sort of beginning to live the American dream -- and then finding another route for those folks who are responding to labor market needs in the United States but doing it in a way that's regulated and legalized and hopefully will have very strong labor rights attached to it so that the workers who would come in temporarily would have the same treatment as workers in the rest of the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Eric, let's talk about the political realities. Is Congress going to approve this kind of an idea? We talked about the split among republicans over it. And is it something that's likely to be a feature of this September meeting and also of the continuing negotiations involving Colin Powell and John Ashcroft?
ERIC SCHMITT: I think it's going to be very difficult for this following reason: I think those... There are those who support some kind of legalization plan who say they will not support any kind of guest worker program without it. You have, as was suggested, some very... a relatively small but influential group led by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas who has vowed to kill any guest worker program that has any legalization component.
GWEN IFILL: Over his cold, dead body I believe.
ERIC SCHMITT: That's right. And so I think what you're going to have to see is whether the administration and President Bush makes it such a priority and elevates it again to a foreign policy that he can trump some of these domestic objections. I think both presidents -- President Fox who has been pushing this would very much like to announce an initiative in September but there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.
GWEN IFILL: Eric Schmitt, Cecilia Munoz and George Borjas, thank you all for joining me.