The San Juan Star / February 22, 2001
By Larry Luxner
MEXICO CITY -- Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo-Vila and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican origin, were among 12 Hispanic members of Congress who met Tuesday with President Vicente Fox and other top Mexican officials.
The historic two-day visit -- coming on the heels of last week's informal meeting between Fox and President Bush -- was organized and paid for by the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce. High on the agenda were contentious issues like immigration, drug smuggling and water rights in border areas, and a controversial proposal by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to allow Mexican guest workers into the United States.
Gutierrez, an outspoken critic of current U.S. immigration policy, says the Gramm proposal amounts to "human slavery" because it benefits big business while offering nothing in the way of worker protection or the right to form unions.
"It's a huge contradiction, and an act of political hypocrisy [for Gramm] to come to Mexico like he's acting in good faith," said Gutierrez, whose comments won warm applause from his Mexican counterparts in the Chamber of Deputies.
In an interview with The STAR, the 47-year-old lawmaker -- whose mother is from Aguadilla and his father from San Sebastian -- said his Puerto Rican roots make him far more sympathetic than the average member of Congress to the plight of Mexican migrant farmworkers.
"I feel an affinity towards Mexican-Americans," said Gutierrez, noting that 65% of the population of his Chicago district are Hispanics, and that 80% of those Hispanics are Mexicans; most of the remaining 20% are Puerto Ricans. "The basis of my comments [to the Chamber of Deputies] are well-founded. We've always adopted a position against the 'bracero' program. Phil Gramm wants to appear to be kind and considerate to immigrants, while serving the needs of agribusiness. He wants to have his cake and eat it too."
Gutierrez added: "The bill we introduced last year would have accomplished the same goal of allowing migrants to fulfill the needs of the agriculture industry, but would have also guaranteed workers the right to organize. It was have guaranteed that our federal work standards remain in place, and most importantly, it would have allowed Mexican workers, after three years, to adjust their status to become permanent residents, which is exactly what should have happened."
The Mexico City visit, which included meetings with Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda, Economy Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow in addition to President Fox, brought together a curious mix of Congressional Democrats and a dozen or so representatives of big business. These included CEOs and lobbyists for entities like Bell Helicopter, Boeing, AOL, Delphi Automotive Systems and the National Foreign Trade Council -- people who tend to vote staunchly Republican.
Despite their political differences, however, all the participants -- in one speech after another to their Mexican colleagues -- pledged to work towards righting past wrongs and improving relations between the United States and Mexico, which last year recorded about $250 billion in bilateral trade. That's up from $80 billion in 1994, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.
Acevedo, who like Bush has been in office for exactly one month, said he came to Mexico out of solidarity with his Hispanic colleagues in the House of Representatives.
"We have had our own experiences with immigration," said the resident commissioner in an impromptu interview while waiting to meet President Fox. "In the 1930s and 40s, people moved from Puerto Rico to New York, New Jersey and elsewhere looking for better jobs. They were initially mistreated, getting lower-paying jobs and working in deplorable conditions -- except that in our case, it was all legal immigration. But it's not only a problem of legal or not. They were still mistreated.
"The government of Puerto Rico realizes it was responsible also, because the reason they moved away was because there were no opportunities on the island," he told The STAR. "Now the new Mexican government is aware that they have to deal with this too."
Acevedo, who handed Fox a letter from Gov. Sila Calderon inviting him to visit the island, said he expects relations between the two governments to improve, despite the contention by some that Mexico -- which enjoys duty-free trade with the United States under NAFTA -- has "stolen" jobs from relatively high-wage Puerto Rico.
In answer to a question from Acevedo on Puerto Rico's role in regional trade relations, Derbez -- the Mexican economics minister -- vowed not to neglect the island.
"The Fox government believes strongly in free trade with the whole world. Some people are concerned with the Caribbean Basin Initiative and how it'll affect U.S.-Mexican trade. I tell them they should not be afraid of this," said Derbez. "If we identify what the strengths and weaknesses are, we can put together a strong trade program and won't be trying to undercut each other. Puerto Rico is an excellent example of this. You have a unique opportunity to really help us do that."
Asked to assess his first month on Capitol Hill, Acevdeo said he's spent much of his time up until now explaining Puerto Rico's priorities to fellow Democrats, let alone to Republicans.
"We need a new alternative to Section 936. We need it badly," argued the 39-year-old resident commissioner. "Between 1996 and 2000, we lost 17,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector. And so far this year, companies have announced another 5,000 layoffs. We don't have any incentives for attracting investment. So now we're crafting a new proposal, which is being worked on by Ramon Cantero Frau [the new secretary for economic development."
Acevedo said his counterparts in the New Progressive Party "will have to support us on this, because if they don't, the people will blame them. They betrayed the jobs back in 1996, when [former Resident Commissioner Carlos] Romero Barcelo said Puerto Rico didn't need Section 936."
Added Gutierrez: "That's one of the unfortunate legacies of the Rossello administration. In order to advance the status of statehood for Puerto Rico, they put on the butcher block one of the elements of the Puerto Rican economy."
On another issue, Vieques, both lawmakers stood firm.
"It's a pressing issue, bedcause the Nay will start bombing in March. But even if the people vote to get the Navy out, they can still stay in Vieques until 2003," said Acevedo. "It's not a national security issue, it's a health and human-rights issue -- and President Bush has to address the issue from this perspective."
Gutierrez was even more to the point: "The consensus is clear on Vieques. The Navy is just gonna have to go. You will not be able to thwart the will of the people. Key to the success of Sila Calderon was the perceived arrogance [NPP candidate Carlos] Pesquera showed on the Vieques issue. That was a turning point in Sila's campaign. She always had a good position, but towards the last three or four weeks of the campaign, she really nailed him."