LOS ANGELES -- President Bush signed a bill Thursday authorizing a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border but leaving aside other aspects of the immigration debate for now. As a Mexican, I'm outraged that Mr. Bush and other politicians in Washington believe it is necessary to build a wall to keep my compatriots from coming here to work. But I'm also ashamed that Mexico is, in many ways, to blame for making the border fence possible.
Mexico's failure to understand the immigration debate in the U.S. has weakened its negotiating position. Outgoing President Vicente Fox is not entirely at fault. Illegal immigration is a controversial issue in Mexico as well, and his political maneuvering room is limited.
When Mr. Fox formally protested to the U.S. State Department about the legislation calling for the border fence, some politicians still accused him of timidity and demanded that he had to stop its construction. In a speech during his failed presidential campaign, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, even accused him of lacking the moral stature to stand up to the U.S.
Although the migration of Mexicans to the United States has been a constant for more than a century, Mexico's politicians have failed to articulate a coherent and realistic national immigration policy because the country's political parties and institutions, its business sector, academics, media and public do not all agree that illegal immigration is a bad thing. Paradoxically, Mexico's budding democracy has made it harder to achieve such a consensus because its political parties have greater parity than when the Institutional Revolutionary Party enjoyed a political monopoly.
Still, the Fox administration has failed to adequately inform Americans about the myriad successes of its border cooperation with U.S. authorities. For instance, few know about the two countries' exchanges of intelligence and information to ensure that the busy, 2,000-mile-long border doesn't become a conduit for terrorists seeking to enter the United States. Five years after 9/11, no terrorist threat has been connected to a southern border crossing. That's an amazing achievement considering there are about 1 million legal crossings a year, and every day more than 300,000 vehicles cross the 53 points of entry into the U.S., carrying about $650 million worth of merchandise.
As an American, I had hoped that the Senate, when it took up the immigration legislation, would strip the fence from the bill. I still hold out hope that when Congress takes up the legislation again, it will remove other mean-spirited provisions. I'm panicked by the thought that I would be classified as an "alien smuggler" if caught driving a nanny or a gardener who, unbeknownst to me, was living here illegally. Another provision would make it possible to jail all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country by making their unlawful presence an "aggravated felony" rather than a civil violation. And a provision that would turn state and local police into immigration agents would only seed confusion in the nation's barrios.
How radical is this approach to illegal immigration? Well, the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, certainly no friends of Mr. Fox, have held up the House immigration bill as a prime example of how el imperialismo yanqui disrespects even its closest allies.
I know that extending the border fence, begun in the mid-1980s, from California to the tip of Texas won't fix this nation's broken immigration system. The unprecedented rise of illegal crossings since the late 1980s has come despite greater border fortifications and a drastic increase in the Border Patrol.
I also realize that Mexico must understand the new realities of the post-9/11 world and should take control of its side of the border. To do that, it must finish its economic reforms so that the economy can grow at sustained rates to generate enough good jobs to keep Mexicans at home. It also must change its laws and regulations, including perhaps the constitution, to require Mexicans who want to emigrate to obtain proper legal documentation before doing so. As it now reads, no law bars a Mexican from simply walking across a border.
Not too long ago, most U.S. ninth-graders knew by heart a Robert Frost poem that challenged the traditional idea that good fences make good neighbors:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.
Humiliation doesn't foster cooperation and understanding between friends struggling with such a complex problem as immigration. The wall, if built, would unnecessarily humiliate Mexicans. It should humiliate Americans as well.
Sergio Munoz, who is a citizen of both Mexico and the United States, writes a weekly column in 23 newspapers in 13 countries. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.