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U.S. Law on Migrants Has Mexico Up in Arms

(Also see: Mexico Criticizes IIRIRA)

Immigration: Amid public outcry, top officials appeal for calm. New measure aims to make deportations easier.

By Mark Fineman, Times Staff Writer

April 3, 1997

MEXICO CITY--A ruling-party legislator called for a Mexican boycott of American goods. A leftist lawmaker urged the Mexican government to declare President Clinton persona non grata--just weeks before the U.S. leader's scheduled visit here. And in a rare show of nonpartisanship, all four parties in Mexico's Congress roundly condemned a tough new U.S. immigration law--which took effect Tuesday--that they fear will push hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrants out of the United States with neither dignity nor due process.

Facing a firestorm of furor and fear, nearly a dozen senior Mexican officials, led by Foreign Secretary Jose Angel Gurria Trevino spent hours Wednesday trying to convince a skeptical nation that the new law will not trigger a wave of deportations and flood Mexico with newly unemployed compatriots--nor rob it of the more than $4 billion that Mexican migrants send home from the U.S. each year.

"There is no possibility of massive returns of Mexicans," said Cesar Becker, deputy interior secretary for population and migration affairs, echoing statements, both public and private, by U.S. officials earlier this week. Among other things, the sweeping new law opens the way for more Border Patrol staff and an accelerated deportation process.

Senior Mexican officials made it clear that their government can do little more than protest and prepare for what they called the limited impact of a law that many here see as part of a broader U.S. drift toward isolationism on the immigration front--particularly toward Mexico.

In a three-hour news conference meant largely for domestic consumption, Gurria and the other officials explained the new law in chapter and verse, focusing most of their concern on the section that removes illegal migrants' rights to judicial hearings before deportation.

They said the government has hired nearly three dozen new legal experts and assigned them to Mexico's 41 consulates in the United States to prepare for an expected increase in migration problems. But their message was tempered, void of the harsh legislative rhetoric that made headlines nationwide here Wednesday.

The government's appeal for calm came a day after both houses of Mexico's Congress staged fiery debates that one Mexican official likened to calling for a declaration of war on the United States.

The new law took effect amid increasingly strained relations between the two countries. It comes just weeks after a bitter U.S. congressional vote to decertify Mexico as an ally in the war on drugs that failed in the U.S. Senate but deeply offended Mexico's national pride. Many lawmakers and citizens here view the immigration law in the same context, and the legislators as well as Mexican officials see what they call a worsening climate of racism and xenophobia north of the border.

U.S. Border Patrol crackdowns on illegal immigration in Southern California were blamed here for several road accidents that killed illegal Mexican migrants in California last year. More undocumented Mexicans were reported to have died of exposure as they hid in freezing freight trains near the border in Texas.

Gurria said that among Mexico's chief concerns is whether the new law will be implemented by local authorities "who could act with abuse and excessive force," or federal authorities. (The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service has been given the lead role in enforcing the new U.S. legislation.)

During Tuesday's sessions, the lower Chamber of Deputies and the Senate passed sweeping resolutions denouncing the new law and calling on President Ernesto Zedillo's government to fight it through the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Ruling-party and opposition lawmakers urged the government to coordinate those efforts with other Latin American countries affected by the legislation, and the Senate announced that it would present a detailed analysis to the U.N. of how the U.S. law violates immigrants' human rights.

"The Senate will manifest energetically that the migration law is based on some wrong criteria and that it is an attempt to violate the human and labor rights of Mexicans who live in that country," the resolution stated. "At the same time, it intensifies the racist climate of threats and persecution against them."

Gurria, who made no comment on those proposals Wednesday, will be summoned by Mexico's Congress next week, when the legislators are expected to push for further action.

Also see: Mexico Criticizes IIRIRA