An Open-Border Pipe Dream

Sarah Gustin, care coordinator at CareLink Central Arkansas Area Agency on Aging Inc., helps Lovell Davis, 65, left, sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program Monday, May 15, 2006, in North Little Rock, Ark.
AP Photo/Danny Johnston
In speech after speech, Mexico President Vicente Fox argues for his dream: A free flow of workers across an open border, an international boundary that ceases to be a barrier.

But the 2,000-mile frontier between Mexico and the United States is delineated by steel walls and barbed wire, watched over by uniformed guards from the Border Patrol.

"It will never happen," Rosalinda Arebalo of neighboring Matamoros, Mexico, said flatly of Fox's dream. "If it did, it would be a miracle."

If anything, the border is closing down. The United States announced plans this fall to step up border security with 1,300 miles of road and fence, cameras and thousands of portable floodlights. From 1993 through 1999, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.

A Great Start
Mexican President Vicente Fox scored an impressive first-day political victory when opposing Zapatista guerillas agreed to meet with him and negotiate an end to hostilities.
"I'll be honest, your country isn't ready for it," said Fernando Kleinfingher, a computer consultant in Tijuana, Mexico. "It would be very hard for America to accept."

"The United States will never allow an open border," predicted Faustino Avalos, a 65-year-old farmer strolling home to Matamoros. "They only want Mexicans to visit and buy things. The undocumented workers get nothing but injustice."

Economists say the skepticism is well-founded.

"It's a totally unrealistic proposal," said Steve Bronars, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's just not something that's going to happen."

Fox, who was sworn into office Friday, first pledged to open the border during a heated campaign to overturn the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Pressed for details after his July election, the former Coca-Cola executive revised his scheme, promising to bring Mexican wages up to U.S. standards and open the border within 10 years, although he remains vague about a schedule.

Economists say an unfettered flow of Mexican workers could drive wages down and strain social services to the breaking point, particularly in border states.

On top of that, adds El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez: "There are safety issues of drugs, terrorists and contraband."

President Clinton and Vic President Al Gore were noncommittal in August meetings with Fox. And Texas Gov. George W. Bush said he supported "a humane way" of cracking down on migration from "our friendly neighbor to the south."

"I appreciate (Fox's) optimistic vision," Bush said.

Mark Krikorian, director of the nonpartisan, Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, believes Fox's call for an open border is a "bargaining chip." Fox will demand a porous boundary and then settle for an increase in legal migration, he predicted.

"He's hoping the United States will split the difference," Krikorian said.

It's a good time to cut a deal. U.S. unemployment is at its lowest in three decades and there are fewer people to fill low-skilled jobs in farms, restaurants and factories.

That scenario rings familiar to Arebalo, 49, who went from Matamoros to North Carolina to work in soybean fields when she was a girl. Her family needed the money and the farms needed the help.

Those were the days of the Bracero Program, World War II-era legislation that beckoned thousands of Mexican nationals to replenish a dwindling U.S. labor pool.

In 1954, a military-style Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign called "Operation Wetback" drove about 1 million illegal immigrants back into Mexico. Ten years later, the Bracero Program fizzled out.

"Back then it was simple to get papers to work here, and you could just come across," Arebalo said as she stepped off the international bridge into Brownsville's shopping district. "But then everything changed."

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