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Mexican President Advocates Legislation for Undocumented Migrant Workers - 2001-09-07

During his visit to the United States this week, Mexican President Vicente Fox advocated legalization for his nation's undocumented migrant workers, and also invited the migrants to return and help build the economy of their homeland.

On the face of it, the Fox call for migrant workers to return to Mexico may seem odd. The reason more than three million Mexicans have chosen to enter the United States illegally is that wages there are seven-to-ten times higher than they are back home. At Mexico's current rate of population growth, the country needs to produce a million jobs a year, and it has not been able to do so. In fact, this year a recession has resulted in the loss of some 400,000 jobs.

Still, an economic analyst for Mexico's TV Azteca, Roberto Salinas Leon, says President Fox is on the right track in seeking the eventual return of immigrants. "The idea that these Mexicans living in the United States should come back is precisely an acknowledgment that he wants to turn Mexico into a land of opportunity," he said. "Mexico has been exporting a vast amount of extremely productive people, its best people. The capital flight in Mexico has been much more in the form of human capital flight, rather than financial capital flight", Leon said. But when President Fox calls for immigrants to come home, he also wants them to bring money to invest.

Migrants already represent an important support for the Mexican economy. Each year, the 6-8 million Mexican immigrants living north of the border send back around $6 billion in so-called remittances to family members at home. That is the nation's third largest source of foreign exchange, and is almost equal to the total earnings of the close to 100 million Mexicans who remain working in Mexico.

Mr. Salinas Leon says immigrants will return, with their money, if Mr. Fox can achieve structural reforms that will promote growth and create opportunities. "It is this type of aggressive, pro-growth, pro-reform stance that will enable Mexico to at least meet the conditions to begin to address the wage differential between Mexico and the United States, and to mitigate the migratory flows that today take place," Leon said.

Mr. Salinas Leon concedes that President Fox faces a huge challenge in getting his reforms through a divided Mexican Congress. But he says, even a partial move in the direction of reform will produce big benefits for the Mexican economy and create more opportunities for those who might otherwise be tempted to go North.