WHEN MEXICAN President Vicente Fox made an offhand and insensitive remark last month implying that Mexicans would do jobs in the United States that "not even blacks" were willing to do, he showed his ignorance of the political influence black voters have in this country - unlike his country's largely disenfranchised Indian minority - and stepped into the minefield of American race relations. In the process, he unearthed simmering resentments among poor and working-class black Americans who once held the low-wage jobs now held by millions of Mexican immigrants.
Though Mexican-American immigrant advocacy groups quickly denounced Mr. Fox's comments and reiterated their strong ties to and common interests with black civil rights organizations, his comments exposed tensions over competition for jobs and frustration with depressed wages and poor labor standards that many black Americans - and many white Americans, for that matter - blame on the presence of 10 million illegal immigrants in this country.
At a time when the U.S. Congress is debating the need for immigration reform and President Bush is pushing for a guest worker program that will bring thousands more foreign workers, most of them Mexican, to this country, the controversy over Mr. Fox's comments should remind lawmakers formulating an immigration reform plan to include better working conditions, increased wages and stronger health and safety regulations in any reform law approved. These measures will help all workers, immigrants and citizens alike, and reduce the inherent unfairness of employers exclusively hiring undocumented immigrants who will work for less pay than Americans and are less likely to demand fair treatment.
The common belief that immigrants take jobs Americans don't want is not clearly verifiable. Some research shows that Americans do in fact want some of the service, hospitality and construction industry jobs held mostly by immigrants. Nonetheless, the economic benefits of immigration far outweigh the disadvantages. And no right-thinking person who understands the desperation fueling illegal immigration can seriously believe that border patrols alone can stop the influx. Only a well-managed immigration system can, and only a fairly designed guest-worker program with tough labor standards will protect American workers.
Mr. Fox's comments - "There is no doubt that Mexican men and women, full of dignity, willingness and a capacity to work, are doing work that not even blacks want to do in the United States" - implied that black Americans believe they are above some jobs that humble Mexicans willingly take. Mr. Fox fails to understand that Americans, including poor and working-class whites who also don't take such jobs, should believe they are above the terribly exploitative treatment that some immigrants helplessly accept.
Americans rightly believe that real dignity comes with a fair and living wage, that a country that embraces the ideal of equality should not have a labor force of dirt-poor immigrants or poor black workers. Illegal immigration puts all workers at a disadvantage and allows employers to keep wages down. Americans of all colors deserve better. Mr. Fox should believe his people do, too.