MEXICO CITY — The debate over illegal immigration via Mexico into the United States took two new turns Wednesday, after President Vicente Fox warned that a proposed U.S. border fence would fall just like the Berlin Wall and Mexico’s human rights commission said it would distribute 70,000 border crossing maps in a bid to prevent immigrant deaths.
The U.S. was swift in denouncing the move to hand out the maps. “We oppose in the strongest terms the publication of maps to aid those who wish to enter the United States illegally,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Meanwhile, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a citizen border watch group, said it would use the maps to strategically place its teams of volunteers to better report illegal crossings to the U.S. Border Patrol.
The fence, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last month, has angered many Mexicans and Fox’s government is lobbying U.S. Senate leaders to block it.
“What is not resolved by intelligent policies and by leaders is resolved by citizens. That is how the Berlin Wall fell, and that is how this wall will fall,” Fox told Reuters. “I hope it isn’t even built because, if it is, it will fall.”
Fox’s government has pushed hard for U.S. immigration reform in favor of millions of Mexicans living and working illegally in the United States.
President Bush is backing a guest worker program to match immigrants with jobs for a set time period.
But the plan faces stiff opposition inside the Republican Party and many of its lawmakers supported the fence proposal as a way of tightening security along the long, porous border. They also voted to make illegal immigration a felony.
Fox said he was still confident the Senate would reject the fence proposal and that a guest worker program would be agreed upon this year, but he took another swipe at the “hardliners from the other side” who want tighter border security and no immigration reform.
“It is truly shameful,” said Fox, who has made close ties with Washington and the search for an immigration deal the centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Mexican election issue
U.S. treatment of Mexican migrants is already a campaign issue ahead of Mexico’s presidential election in July, especially after the recent fatal shootings of two illegal Mexican migrants by U.S. security forces.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate leading opinion polls, said Tuesday the migration problem could not be resolved “with walls or repressive measures”.
“If there is no growth in the Mexican economy and no jobs, then even if they build walls and maintain hardball threats and severe laws, people will still, because of necessity, try to go and work in the United States,” he said.
Mexicans working in the United States are a huge source of revenue for Mexico, sending home more than $16 billion in remittances in 2004, Mexico’s second largest source of foreign currency after oil exports, according to the country’s central bank.
Fox’s comments came as Mexico’s human rights commission said Tuesday it will distribute at least 70,000 maps showing highways, rescue beacons and water tanks in the Arizona desert to curb the death toll among illegal border crossers.
The commission, a government-funded agency with independent powers, denied that the maps — similar to a comic-style guide booklet Mexico distributed last year — would encourage illegal immigration.
Officials said the maps would help guide those in trouble find rescue beacons and areas with cell phone reception. The maps will also show the distance a person can walk in the desert in a single day.
“We are not trying in any way to encourage or promote migration,” said Mauricio Farah, one of the commission’s national inspectors. “The only thing we are trying to do is warn them of the risks they face and where to get water, so they don’t die.”
U.S. response: Not helpful
Secretary Chertoff denounced the idea of putting maps into the hands of those thinking about illegally entering the country. "It is a bad idea to encourage migrants to undertake this highly dangerous and ultimately futile effort," Chertoff said. "This effort will entice more people to cross, leading to more migrant deaths and the further enrichment of the criminal human trafficking rings that prey on the suffering of others."
And some advocates of greater immigration control were irritated by the map announcement.
“What’s next? Are they going to buy them bus tickets to Chicago?” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s clearly a bad thing for Mexico to be encouraging illegal immigration.”
Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minutemen organization, went further in his condemnation. “While marketed as a humanitarian gesture, the guide can also be used as a road map for terrorists seeking to surreptitiously enter the U.S. to kill Americans,” Simcox said. “The government of Mexico, though its National Human Rights Commission, and Humane Borders are recklessly endangering the security of the United States.”
The comic booklet for migrants was distributed by the government in early 2005 and warned of the perils of crossing illegally into the United States, while offering tips to stay safe.
The booklet, of which about 1.5 million were printed, enraged some advocates of stricter immigration policies in the United States who argue that it encouraged illegal migration.
Farah said his commission was simply trying to prevent deaths and estimated that around 500 Mexicans died trying to cross the border in 2005. Many die in the desert, where summer temperatures soar above 100 degrees, and many drown while attempting to cross the Rio Grande.
The commission plans to hang the poster-size maps in March in places where migrants will see them, such as migrant-aid groups, the commission’s offices and in Mexican border towns.
U.S. group designed maps
They were designed by the Tucson, Ariz.-based rights group Humane Borders, which operates some of the desert water stations. The group previously distributed about 100 posters in the Mexican border town of Sasabe.
The Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, said maps are needed in southern Mexico so migrants can weigh the risks before leaving home.
Some of the posters have warnings, such as “Don’t go. There isn’t enough water,” but officials conceded many migrants were unlikely to heed the advice.
Knocke said the United States had increased personnel and surveillance along the border to discourage illegal crossings and immigrant smugglers.
“Our message should be clear: We are securing our borders, and we’re dramatically increasing the likelihood of apprehensions,” he said.
Farah said migration “is a human right” and that “the United States should be grateful” the commission is doing something to curb the death toll, because “hundreds of thousands of Mexicans help maintain their economy.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.