WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Since Sept. 11, existing U.S. immigration policy towards Mexico has come to be viewed as a potentially dangerous to national security, but experts at a recent think tank symposium disagreed on what changes should be made in order to fix the problem.
Robert Leiken, a guest scholar at the conservative Nixon Center, believes that a Mexican government proposal to grant legal immigrant status to currently illegal Mexican workers in the United States, along with other related reforms, are the wrong steps to take in light of the security problems associated with the Mexican border.
"Given current threat assessments, probably all of these (security) mandates have higher priority than a policy to deal with nine million illegal aliens, as important as that may be," said Leiken during the Aug. 6 panel discussion on Mexican immigration policy sponsored by the Nixon Center and the Center for Immigration Studies.
Before Sept. 11, Mexican President Vicente Fox and other Mexican officials had requested that the United States increase the annual legal quota for legal Mexican immigrants from 75,000 to 250,000. They also proposed establishing an amnesty program for the millions of illegal workers currently residing in the United States.
The administration of President George W. Bush continues to show interest in this plan, despite the fact that since last fall, the administration has toughened its approach to border security in the southern United States, increasing the budget for next fiscal year and placing more emphasis on developing a stronger security presence along the Mexican boarder.
Leiken and other policy experts believe that proposals to liberalize U.S. policy toward illegal Mexican immigrants are the wrong tactic given current security risks.
But some critics of current U.S. policy believe that although security problems exist, it is only through open engagement with Mexico the country that the U.S. government can reduce the security threat.
"Mexican immigrants are not a direct threat to homeland security," said Leiken. "The real problem is that a large illegal population creates an active market for illegal documents."
Leiken and others say that because of this and other side effects of the large pool of illegals, the focus of U.S. immigration policy should be on improving Mexico's control of immigration, not liberalizing the U.S. response.
"We need to work to extend the rule of law to Mexico's border and seaports," he said. "Helping to extend the rule of law in Mexico is, in light of 9/11, our most important Mexican policy role."
George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, said at the forum that the Mexican government must improve its control of the border and end its use as a conduit for illegal entry to American soil.
His research shows that more than 100 intricate criminal organizations run afoul of Mexican law enforcement in the southern United States running illegal immigrants from around the world through the porous border.
"Increasing numbers of Asians, Africans and Middle Eastern immigrants are able to cross the boarder with 'aiders' who are linked from their home countries all the way to the United States," said Grayson.
He also noted that guest work programs, like that proposed by Mexican president Fox last fall, have historically produced a parallel stream of illegal workers. Grayson and Leiken said this shows the need for reform within Mexico before new immigration deals should be discussed.
Leiken also noted that immigration problems may get even worse under plans for reorganizing immigration management under the new Department of Homeland Security. Realignment disrupts even the best run agencies, he said, adding that placing more responsibility onto an agency as problem-plagued as the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be "irresponsible."
"A hurricane is not the time to turn on the sprinklers," he said.
Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, dismissed these as the politically motivated views of immigration skeptics, not of those interested in discussing policy alternatives.
"The unfortunate thing is that a lot of the politics that permeate this conversation are passed on as facts and as intellectually valid," he said.
Papademetriou has long advocated greater cooperation between the American and Mexican governments as a means to address the problem of immigration.
He says that if the United States could take care of its immigration problems unilaterally, it would have already done so. He also noted that the $2.5 billion per year invested in border patrol policy and increased efforts to crack down on illegal aliens have had little effect. The population of illegal immigrants has ballooned, and nearly half of these illegals are believed to be Mexican born.
He says what is needed is an honest recognition of policy failures and of the need for a shift in focus.
"The outcome of all of this increasing effort is a higher level of illegal immigration," said Papademetriou "We are not talking about nuclear science here. This is not high mathematics. This is replacing a whole set of faulty assumptions and a paradigm of enforcement and management that has become exhausted.
At the forum, Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies -- a think tank that believes in limiting the influx of immigrants to the United States -- said there are also are economic reason to not undertake the proposed reforms to Mexican immigration policy.
He says that both legal and illegal Mexican immigrants ultimately cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year though their use of social programs, while providing little benefit to the economy.
"There is a high cost to cheap labor," said Camarota "An employer wants someone to work, and it looks like a good deal, but he doesn't see the (overall) costs to him (as a taxpayer)."
But Jeffrey Passel, an expert on immigration policy at the left-leaning Urban Institute, said this analysis is flawed because the impact of illegal immigrants on government social programs is minimal.
"They basically don't use social welfare benefits, they are not eligible," he said. "The two places where they have an impact on government expenditures are in the education system because they have children, and their children (rightfully) go to school. Secondarily, there is an impact on health care expenses, but it is not an overwhelming expenditure."
Passel argues that the tremendous number of Mexican immigrants in the United States -- a population which he estimates is split almost evenly between illegal and legal immigrants -- is very important to the economy because they take agricultural and service industry jobs.
He says that although he is unsure about the guest worker program proposals, current policies have clearly failed and may have been counterproductive.
He noted that there is a good deal of evidence showing that toughening the border before Sept. 11 converted a temporary labor migration into a more permanent one. Passell says that illegal workers that once came o the United States for short term jobs like picking produce were kept from returning home due to the greater difficulty involved in the journey back to Mexico
"Those folks are still here," said Passel. "They are living all over the country and I don't view them as a security threat, but as a group of people who are on the fringe of society, and to some extent outside of the normal institutions, they need to be dealt with. They undermine the functioning of the normal (security) systems."
Passel believes that policymakers need to redraft the discussion
"I think we really need to go back and start over to talk about specific proposals, in the context of where unemployment is at six percent and the economy is not growing very rapidly. That may well change the perspective," he said.