Mexican migration experts are urging the Bush administration to press ahead with a temporary migrant worker program to improve cross-border security and save the lives of hundreds of people who are dying in their attempts to cross illegally into the United States.
U.S. border control statistics indicate that from January to the end of September this year, 464 people died while illegally attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. That is an increase of 43 percent from the previous year.
A heat wave during August is partly to blame for some of the tragedies, but not all. Over the last decade, security along border has been considerably tightened, making it more perilous for undocumented migrants to cross.
Still, according to some estimates, the number of migrants from Mexico has doubled in the last 10 years and those who are in the United States illegally outnumber legal migrants.
Efforts to reach a migration agreement between Mexico and the United States were put on the back burner following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and were shelved when Mexico refused to support the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, migration experts say the problem is growing. Gustavo Mohar, a former senior official at the Mexican foreign ministry, says the American efforts to beef up border security have failed, and, in fact, worsened the situation by disrupting traditional two-way flow of labor.
"I'm afraid that the U.S. policy is wrong. I think this is like the flow of water. If you put a brick in the flow of a river, water will find its way to get through," he said. "The policy of containment and deterrents of the U.S., have proven to be wrong. Migrants will find a way to get through."
The suggestion by influential U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, that a fence be built along the entire 3,000-kilometer U.S.-Mexican border send shockwaves through the Mexican migration policy community.
Representative Hunter says the barrier is necessary both to stop illegal immigration and for national security. The Bush administration opposes the idea of a border-long fence, calling the project a waste of money. But U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff does agree that illegal immigration is a major national security breach.
"The ability of undocumented individuals to enter our country represents an obvious security threat," he said. "Flagrant violation of our borders undercuts the rule of law, undermines our security and imposes special economic strains on our border communities. When we don't control our borders, we also risk the entry of terrorists or criminals who want to do us harm."
The Director of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, Pedro Javier Gonzalez, says such a fence would prove counterproductive and urged President Bush to take what he calls a more constructive approach to dealing with Mexican migrants.
"I think it is the moment to take decisions thinking of the future," he said. "Thinking of a better relation of two countries. A relationship that should be profitable in political, economic and social ways for both countries."
The Bush administration favors a "temporary worker program." Under such a plan, outlined by the president last year, guest workers would enter the country legally, but would have to return to their home nations. But while Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the judiciary committee, calls the migration issue "a matter of very, very substantial urgency," a debate in Congress is not expected until next year.
The proposal for a temporary migrant worker program is seen as a far-sighted solution by Geronimo Guttierez, undersecretary for North America in the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Mr. Guttierez shuttles between Mexico City and Washington in an effort to push his government's case in the United States. He says 40 percent of Mexicans have a relative living in the United States and it is essential for them to be able to come and go legally.
"So it would make all the sense in the world, to establish a program that would allow and satisfy, and it has been said…correspond or match willing employees with willing employers, and then establish whatever legal mechanisms for people, if someone wants to remain in the United States and become a permanent resident…then establish a way to do it, according to the legal procedures that are there," said Mr. Guttierez.
While the problem is growing worse, private citizens in the border states, including Arizona and New Mexico are taking matters into their own hands. They have organized so called Minutemen militia groups to beef up what they see as inadequate border surveillance by the Federal government. On the Mexican side of the border, most people agree that is no substitute for a sound migration policy.