Latinamerica Press / March 12, 2001
By Larry Luxner
MEXICO CITY -- Twelve Hispanic members of the U.S. House of Representatives met Tuesday with President Vicente Fox and other top Mexican officials, in the largest Congressional delegation ever to visit Mexico.
The historic trip -- 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 such as 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.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and 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 a subsequent interview, the 47-year-old lawmaker 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."
Except for Gutierrez, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo-Vila and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), all the visiting lawmakers represented districts bordering Mexico.
Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said the border region "is a key component not just of NAFTA but of the success of both countries" and the whole continent.
"I've never seen such a sense of optimism regarding the future of relations between the United States and Mexico, but I'm also concerned that this window of opportunity might close," said Reyes. "Nothing is more important than making sure that business enterprises on both sides of the border are successful. We're convinced, as members of Congress, that we're in the right place at the right time."
The Mexico City visit, which included meetings with Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castaneda, Economy Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow in addition to 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.
Puerto Rico's Acevedo-Vila 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 Acevedo in an impromptu interview while waiting to meet 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 said. "Now the new Mexican government is aware that they have to deal with this, too."