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Mexico's Carlos de Icaza: On the front line of immigration reform
The Washington Diplomat / June 2006

By Larry Luxner

Concrete walls, electronic sensors and National Guard troops along the Río Grande separating Mexico and the United States go against everything Carlos Alberto de Icaza González believes in.

"Between the U.S. and Mexico, we need more bridges of communications and fewer fences," he says. "The bottom line for us is this: it's not by building walls or making criminals out of undocumented workers that we'll face the immigration challenge."

Icaza, 57, is Mexico's ambassador to the United States. Born in Lebanon to a diplomatic family — his father was a top official at the Mexican Embassy in Beirut — Icaza last month granted a rare one-hour interview to the Washington Diplomat at his official residence.

The immigration issue has been at the top of Mexico's agenda for a long time, and now it's becoming a priority for the United States as well — through from a vastly different perspective.

"Relations between our two countries are very dynamic, complex and quite unique. I don't think there are any other two countries in the world with such an intense, unique relationship as that between Mexico and the United States," he told us.

"Every day, we have almost one million legal crossings, 350,000 vehicles and $650 million in trade crossing the border, and 670 commercial flights crossing our skies. We buy more American products than Japan, Great Britain and France combined, and total U.S. investment in Mexico since 1994 is over $100 billion. This has brought enormous opportunities for both countries.

"The problem here in the U.S. regarding Mexico is that people tend to see us as we were 10 or 20 years ago. Not many people realize that today, Mexico is the second-largest trading partner of the United States, and it's a very stable economy. Not only has our country been growing, but we also pay our debts. And last year, for the first time ever, our inflation rate was lower than that of the United States."

Yet Mexico is still a very poor country relative to its rich northern neighbor, and Mexicans continue to flock across the 2,000-mile border despite increased surveillance — and that is the crux of the whole immigration debate now swirling in Congress and throughout the United States.

"Every year, the American economy demands 500,000 jobs for low-skilled workers, and for that category, the U.S. is only giving 5,000 visas," Icaza explained. "What's happening here is that we have an economically driven migration between our countries. The American economy is 15 times the size of Mexico's. It doesn't matter how well we do. The fact is, there's a difference of wages, and that's what is bringing people here. Immigration is regulated by the market laws of supply and demand."

On July 2, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new president to replace incumbent Vicente Fox. At the moment, the leading candidate according to surveys is Felipe Calderón, a 43-year-old former congressman and energy minister who belongs to Fox's National Action Party.

Calderón, a staunch advocate of free trade and open markets, has surged past Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-leaning former mayor of Mexico City who had dominated the polls until very recently. But one thing both candidates agree on is their opposition to Washington's tougher border controls — specifically President Bush's plan to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops and build a wall along the frontier.

While Icaza refused to speculate on his country's upcoming election in any way, he's only too eager to talk about immigration reform. And one of the biggest myths in this whole immigration debate, he insists, is that people are heading north because of extreme poverty in Mexico.

"Excuse me, but it's a proven fact that most of the Mexicans crossing the border are not from the poorest parts of Mexico. To cross the border, you need information, a lot of courage and some money," he said.

Icaza, citing a survey of 5,700 undocumented workers conducted last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, said that migrants who come from Mexico have more schooling than the average Mexican, and that 90% of them had jobs back home when they left.

"It's not unemployed people who are crossing, but some people in the media distort things because they don't want comprehensive immigration reform."

At press time, the Senate was poised to pass a wide-ranging package that combines much tighter border controls with a controversial guest-worker program outlined by Bush in his recent televised speech to the nation. The Senate bill also creates a path to citizenship for those Mexicans who are here illegally.

According to Icaza, 10 million people born in Mexico currently live in the United States. On top of that are another 15 million Mexican-Americans who are U.S. citizens. Of the 10 million born in Mexico, 43% are legal residents and 57% are either undocumented or unauthorized — Icaza shuns the term "illegal."

A similar bill passed by the House would criminalize many of those undocumented Mexicans and offers no possibility for citizenship or even temporary work permits.

"Immigrants are voicing their concern because the proposed [House] legislation will make millions of undocumented workers criminals," Icaza told the Diplomat.

"Mexico repects the sovereign right of other countries to protect their territorial integrity. However, we think that a new bilateral immigration accord should be based on the principles of shared responsibility and cooperation. The construction of walls and fences along the border is not the way to promote secure, modern borders."

Once the Senate approves immigration reform, it will then enter a long period of negotiations with the Bush administration on a final package, which would likely come before the November congressional elections.

"We hope that a comprehensive immigration reform bill will get through Congress. I don't know when, and we hope this reform acknowledges the importance of cooperation. We are ready to work with our American counterparts in achieving an agreement and an understanding so we can have legal migration."

Yet the immigration issue is extremely emotional, on many levels and from many perspectives, including that of the African-American community.

"Mass illegal immigration has been the single greatest impediment to black advancement in this country over the past 25 years," claims Choose Black America, a coalition of African-American leaders who have banded together to speak out against the proposed legislation. "Blacks in particular have lost economic opportunities, seen their kids' schools flooded with non-English speaking students, and felt the socioeconomic damage of illegal immigration more acutely than any other group."

Other groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the American Immigration Control Foundation, the California Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Minutemen are far more incendiary, spending millions of dollars on sophisticated websites, advertising campaigns and media blitzes in an effort to control or stop immigration altogether.

"I think it's totally unacceptable to have people who want to take the law into their own hands," Icaza says of the Minutemen and other vigilante groups now patrolling parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, on the lookout for potential border-crossers.

Even so, says Icaza, the Mexican Embassy "has not hired any lobbying firm on the immigration issue — not one. We play according to the traditions and rules of the game. We present information to the White House, to government authorities and members of Congress about our message of cooperation and the things we can do together."

Icaza pointed out that "for more than 30 years, we have had a guest-worker program with Canada. It works very well. Every year, an average of 12,000 people go to Canada, work in the fields and come back.

"If there were a guest-worker program that would correspond to the realities of the economy, it would help both the U.S. and Mexico take pressure off the border. Once you take pressure off the border, then you can concentrate on fighting the smugglers, drug traffickers and those who encourage unauthorized immigration."

Icaza, who supervises 150 diplomats at the Mexican Embassy and 46 consulates throughout the United States, calls himself a "professional diplomat, not a politican."

He assumed his current post in March 2004, previously having served as Mexico's ambassador to Japan (2001-04), Belgium and Luxembourg (1996-98), Argentina (1995-96) and Ecuador (1986-88).

In addition, Icaza served as undersecretary of foreign relations for Latin America and Asia-Pacific (1998-2000), undersecretary for management (1991-93), chief of staff to the Mexican secretary of foreign relations (1988-91), and general director for Latin America and the Caribbean (1983-86) as well as general director of the Foreign Service (1980-83), which he joined in 1970.

"I see my duty as representing the Mexican state. Being ambassador to Washington and representing a neighbor is a very interesting and challenging position. I have a very good team, I'm a team player and I have lots of support from my government," he told us. "I'm an old-fashioned diplomat, which means the No. 1 quality of diplomacy is veracity ... being truthful, being a good messenger, reflecting the thinking in my country. I have been able to develop extensive contacts. I am not fenced in by the Beltway. Two or three times a month, I travel to different places across the United States, and I stay in constant contact with of our consulates."

He adds that between Washington and Mexico City, "we have a very intense exchange of visits, a dialogue and climate of cooperation that goes from the top of government to all levels, in spite of the fact that some of our problems are so sensitive and complex."

Icaza angrily denied recent news reports that the Mexican government published maps for potential migrants, detailing the best routes for crossing the border illegally.

"The Human Rights Commission of Mexico, which is a non-governmental organization funded by Congress, decided it would be a good idea to make maps for migrants so they don't risk their lives unnecessarily. But because everybody was concerned about [the potential reaction], they decided not to do it in the end," he said.

"We do not promote or encourage in any way migration to the north. Sometimes, Americans expect us to do things that Americans themselves have not been able to do. With all the resources you have, you're expecting Mexicans with fewer resources to cope with this challenge," he said, noting that last year, Mexico deported 250,000 people coming from Central America — most of them intending to continue onto the United States.

"Our message to our American friends is that there is a shared responsibility. Why? Because we recognize that we haven't created all the economic and social opportunities for our people to stay in Mexico. But we want them to stay. We need them for the development of our country. On the other hand, the U.S. economy demands foreign workers, and you're hiring them."

Those workers send home $20 billion a year in remittances — an important source of revenue for many Mexican families — though that's just a drop in the bucket when measured against Mexico's total GDP of $780 billion.

"Remittances make up only 10% of the average monthly salary of an undocumented worker, and 90% of that stays here in the United States," he said. "And after 10 years, people stop sending remittances."

While most of the immigration debate is focused on Mexicans in the United States, Icaza points out that "the biggest expatriate community of Americans in the world is in Mexico, probably around a million, with the largest concentrations around Guadalajara, Baja California and San Miguel de Allende — and close to 40% of them don't have papers."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the immigration issue has heated up considerably, with a much greater focus on security and anti-terrorism initiatives.

Icaza, expounding on the so-called "smart borders agreement," said "one of our big challenges today is to balance the need to protect our trade against security concerns. So on both sides of the border, with full respect for each country's sovereignty, we have launched a specific program called OASIS that protects the safety of migrants while criminally prosecuting traffickers of individuals along the border. We have very strong cooperation in fighting against organized crime, smugglers, traffickers and drug dealers. This is one of the main components of our relationship."

Another important component of that relationship is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since its passage in 1994, NAFTA — which links the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico — has transformed Mexico into one of this nation's top trading partners.

"Today, Mexico's trade with the world is around $400 billion a year — 70% of that with the United States. Mexico is now the 12th-largest economy in the world, according to World Bank data," he said. "On the one hand, we have to increment our capacity to compete and coperats in the face of globalization. We have NAFTA, but NAFTA is only a free-trade agreement, so we have to look ahead."

In fact, NAFTA is quite controversial, with many leading Mexican commentators arguing that the agreement has enriched the wealthy while improverishing the masses because it makes small Mexican companies less competitive in the face of U.S. giants.

Responding to that criticism, Icaza acknowledged that "NAFTA has its shortcomings" and admitted that "some of the people who deal with agriculture have seen that it's harder to compete with the United States."

But he said people should not expect NAFTA do more than what it's already done.

"NAFTA was conceived for one thing only: to bring more business and economic opportunities and create more trade possibilities. From that point of view, it's a success story. The people who are complaining about NAFTA are in fact expecting from it things the program wasn't supposed to do.

"NAFTA is a free-trade agreement, not a development program or an instrument to redistribute the wealth. But it is part of the modernization process of the Mexican economy. It has been one of our main engines of growth. My perception is that Americans who have gone to Mexico recently have seen how much my country has improved. Last year, we created 600,000 jobs. But perceptions between neighbors change very slowly. The average American doesn't know that 13% of your country's international trade is with Mexico."

These days, he said, Mexico is a fully democratic society.

"Mexico has moved from single-party rule — which was the case for 70 years — to a divided government and an open society. We have three major political parties, and the electorate is divided among these three parties. Today, no single party has a majority in Congress."

Regardless of who wins the July 2 presidential elections in Mexico, Icaza says his country's new leader will face some very urgent tasks ahead of him — and that will require cooperation with Washington, not confrontation.

"We must build together in North America a vision for our future. We are trade partners, and we are partners in the fight against terrorism and organized crime. So why can't we be partners together in managing migration flows between our countries, in a legal, safe, humane and dignified way?" he asked. "We want to be and we can be part of the solution. It's time we work together for the well-being of our people and for both our countries."

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