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The Immigration Game — Visas and the Mexican Border

Illegal immigration remains a hotly contested issue within the United States, as evidenced by the subject’s repeated appearance in American political discourse over the years. Formulating effective policy to reform America’s immigration system has been a major struggle for both parties in the United States, but the implementation of any policy has also created significant challenges for the hundreds of Foreign Service officers stationed in Mexico who review and process visa applications in a country where thousands seek to enter America every year. Unable to legally enter the United States easily and quickly, many Mexicans have attempted to cross America’s southern border in desperation, often with dire consequences.

Immigration became a particularly prominent focal point in U.S.-Mexico relations when businessman Vicente Fox acceded to the presidency of Mexico in 2000 and won power from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had dominated Mexican politics for over 70 years. After his inauguration in 2001, President George W. Bush wasted little time in attempting to solve the difficult immigration issue with his Mexican counterpart, demanding that a solution be found within a matter of months.  (Photo: Matt Clark)

That did not happen, in no small part because of Karl Rove and other advisors, who saw it as too sensitive an issue, especially early on in the administration. After 9/11, Washington’s attention shifted elsewhere. Meanwhile, immigrants continued to perish along the Mexican-American border, and the Mexican government, along with the nation’s media, lashed out repeatedly against U.S. officials serving both inside and outside of Mexico.

As Ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, Jeffrey Davidow experienced firsthand the hardships of managing this complex issue. During his tenure as ambassador, Davidow struggled to resolve immigration problems with the frequently hostile government in Mexico City and to convince his hosts that his embassy was operating with good intentions. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2012.

You can read other Moments on consular issues.


“To Mexicans, we are both a threat and an opportunity”

DAVIDOW: I was there from 1998 to 2002, which was a very interesting period, because it was the last two years of the Clinton administration, and also the last two years of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] domination of the presidency in Mexico. And then we had two new presidents come in, [Vicente] Fox and [George W.] Bush.

So my stay there was pretty much divided in half as I dealt with four presidents and a very changed political situation….

The relationship with Mexico was and still remains an extraordinarily complicated one. It is subject to periods of real friction and then things get better for a while, then the friction returns. The Mexicans have an attitude towards the United States which is often described as love/hate.

I don’t agree with that. It is not love/hate. There’s very little love and there’s very little hate. It’s just that to Mexicans, we are both a threat and an opportunity. We’re a threat because our culture threatens to overwhelm them. Our economy and our political weight in the world is disproportionate to theirs.

But we’re a great opportunity as well, for trade, for immigration, for culture. So there’s always an ambivalence in Mexico. In the United States, generally we don’t pay much attention. And of course that’s the greatest insult of all to somebody, when you don’t pay attention to them….

For a new ambassador, getting a handle on the management of the embassy — and at that time it was one of the largest embassies we had in the world, especially counting our 10 consulates in the country — was a major effort. We had over 30 government agencies represented. And that provided very specific challenges. Plus, we were seeing in our consular sections over two million people a year. And that was something that I spent a lot of time working on when I got there.

In fact, the first day that I arrived at the embassy (pictured) — and this was a certain amount of showmanship on my part — I had my Cadillac pull up to the embassy, and rather than going to my office, I went to the Visa Section because I wanted to let our employees there, particularly the junior officers, know that they were at the top of my list in terms of things to be concerned about.

And over the years that I was there, we really did a lot to improve our treatment, not only of the consular staff, but also of the applicants. For instance, when I got there, the waiting area for visa applicants, which is sort of very large shed, was referred to by everybody as “the barn.” And I let the word get out that I would not accept anybody calling it the barn. A barn is for animals. This facility is for Mexican citizens who are coming to get visas.

We fixed up the room and spent a lot of time streamlining our processes. The junior officers took the lead and they were great. I am concerned that many ambassadors don’t spend much time on things related to consular or administrative matters, and that is a big mistake….

My first job in the Foreign Service had been Vice Consul in Guatemala. Even with all the technological changes, what the junior officers were doing in our embassy in Mexico 30 years later was identical to what I had to do in Guatemala. You get a few seconds to size up a visa applicant, and then more often than not, you have to find a pleasant way of saying, “No, you’re not going to get a visa.”

It’s grueling work, and it really bothers me when it’s not given the appropriate attention. I think that generally an ambassador has an obligation to help his staff do their work. They want to feel useful and important, and ambassadors … who are lost in their own worlds aren’t really doing their full job….

The consuls general in the field were so thoroughly occupied with this incredible visa burden that we got relatively little from them on [narcotics], which was OK, because I really did not want the consul general in Guadalajara or Monterey or Merida to be running around putting his life in danger, trying to figure out who were the chiefs of the local cartels….

The big consular challenge in Mexico was providing new border crossing cards (“visa lasers” as they were called) to millions of Mexicans who had been using antiquated documents — their own and other people’s — to cross the border. Under no justification could the dozens of different types of passes people had obtained over the course of half a century be seen as effective documentation. It was a situation ripe for fraud. And Congress insisted that we change.

In the years that I was there, in addition to new visas, we had to change out over five million of these border-crossing passes. And each one required an interview, fingerprints, a photo, and paperwork. It also meant that the old process, in which somebody who had had a visa for many years would just send their passport in to get the visa extended, because they had to come into the embassy as well. This is now pretty standard operation in most countries. But we were the first starting in the mid ‘90s to do that.

So when you ask about what kind of reporting we were getting from the consuls general, mostly we were getting complaints about lack of manpower, overworked staffs, and not having enough office space. I spent a lot of time on that and trying to ensure that both applicants and consular officials were humanely treated. If an applicant were bullied or treated discourteously, that became the image of the United States not only for him but for his whole family….

“The domestic political advisors were telling the President that he could not do anything on immigration. And so the process went nowhere.”

In July 2000 Fox won the [Mexican presidential] election, and the PRI moved out of national power over the next few months. We went into a period of intense activity because we had a new president in Mexico, Fox, and a new president of the United States, George Bush, by the beginning of 2001.

Now, for Bush, who was not at all experienced in international relations, Mexico was a country with which he already felt some affinity. Many Texan politicians, because they’ve grown up near the border and have probably had a Mexican cook making them tortillas, have a sense that there is a special relationship with Mexico.

And so, Bush very early on in the first month of office decided that he wanted to get together with Vicente Fox. It was billed as the “Meeting of the Two Cowboys.”

In point of fact, Fox has a vegetable ranch. He’s really not a cowboy and neither is Bush. But the idea was that these were two guys with similar backgrounds from the border who could reach agreements and build a new relationship. And President Bush was really excited about this. So within six or seven weeks of becoming president, they met at Fox’s farm…. Now, there were many issues, and no sense getting into them all, but the really big question that dominated the meeting, and then much of the rest of Fox’s presidency, was, of course, immigration.

Now, the White House understood this to be a politically sensitive topic in the U.S. And indeed, before they even made the trip, Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, told the press that, “We’re not talking about amnesty,” meaning we’re not going to consider how to make those 12 million or so undocumented aliens in the United States legal residents. The political fallout of that for the Republicans was judged to be too great.

At the meeting, Bush and Fox agreed that they would form a high-level committee headed on our side by Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and Attorney General [John] Ashcroft and on the Mexican side by Foreign Minister [Jorge] Castañeda and another high official. They would come up with a plan to deal with immigration before June 2001. In other words, they had a three- or four-month deadline. There were a lot of subsequent meetings, mostly at the level of officials.

But it became apparent to me that, at the time, there was no way around the political opposition that was, we heard, coming from [Senior Advisor to the President] Karl Rove and the domestic political advisors who were telling the President that he really could not do anything on immigration and should wait until at least after the midterm elections of 2002. And so the process went nowhere.

Meanwhile, the Mexicans were arguing strongly for a comprehensive immigration agreement that would not only legalize people who were in the U.S., but make it easier for others to come in.

What the Mexicans never truly understood was that this really wasn’t a negotiation because the decisions on immigration were totally in the hands of the United States, and there was little or nothing Mexico could offer in return. (The Mexican Government was certainly not politically able to try to stem the flow of emigration.) So there was a lot of activity, a lot of press, a lot of recrimination.

And here we are a dozen years later, and the situation has not changed in any appreciable way. In fact it has gotten worse because it was not attended to. And, of course, after 9/11, there wasn’t any chance at all. It was a moment of lost opportunity.

In some ways I think both Bush and Fox were naïve at the very beginning. They felt they could find more common ground and bring their respective populations along with them. But they really could not. And you’re right that Mexican politicians should be more understanding. There had already been some important changes in the ways that Mexicans looked at emigration.

Although the PRI would periodically complain about the way Mexican migrants were being treated in the States, the general attitude of previous Mexican governments had not been one of great concern. From their point of view, Mexicans living in the States had made the decision to leave and were really no longer their problem. In point of fact, most Mexican politicians looked on immigration to the U.S. as a safety valve, eliminating from Mexico a lot of people who were obviously unhappy with their situation there.

Fox changed that. He started referring to Mexican migrants as heroes, people who really represented the best of Mexico. And he felt that he had to push hard for a full comprehensive settlement. But the U.S. side was not ready … to deal with the amnesty/legalization issue….

“I tried to explain the reality, but without much success and absolutely no sympathy for our position from the Mexicans”

The situation, which was bad, was made worse by press and politicians who would continually distort reality. I think many Mexicans felt that there was a conscious policy on the part of the United States to mistreat the Mexicans in the U.S. So every time there was an incident or a killing along the border, this would become a cause célèbre in Mexico.

At one point there were groups of vigilantes on the U.S. side who would go out and “hunt” migrants, that is, they would patrol the border, stop people who were obviously crossing illegally and turn them over to the border patrol. (Pictured: Nogales border crossing)

What I didn’t understand for some time was that most Mexicans, when they read the headlines about hunting migrants, actually thought that there were people on the U.S. side taking their guns and going out and shooting people. I tried to explain the reality, but without much success and absolutely no sympathy for our position from the Mexicans.

But it was hard to defend against the Mexican argument, which is essentially that these people would not go to the United States if our system did not welcome them with jobs. And in point of fact, … they are correct. The argument is a variation on the one used to deny responsibility for the drug trade — if you people stopped using drugs, we wouldn’t be sending them north.

As the jobs have disappeared in the U.S. in recent years, migration from Mexico has gone to a point where today there is actually a net zero flow. As many people are going back to Mexico as are coming in from Mexico. I think this is a function of our lousy economy, but many experts argue that the economic development within Mexico is making emigration from there unnecessary. We’ll see what happens when our economy recovers.

I think you may be right in saying that the Mexicans don’t understand our position. But we really don’t understand theirs either….

In Washington, once it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be a global resolution, I continued to push for small steps that could have made life better for large numbers of Mexicans already in the United States. And at times, even the Mexican government rejected those small steps because they wanted to keep the pressure up.

I’ll give you a specific example. At one point, Congress was faced with the possibility of approving a piece of legislation that would allow Mexicans already in the U.S., and who had already received approval or notice that they were going to get a green card, to not have to go back to Mexico for their interview at a consulate. Many did not want to take the risk of leaving the country, so they chose to live in illegality. The new law would let them change status in the U.S. And this would have helped half a million Mexicans.

But the Mexican government put the word out on the Hill to friendly Democrats … that they did not want to see this happen because it would take the pressure off the larger issue. Bush found out about that and he was totally steamed. But there was no meeting of the minds really. There was a lot of talk about how we have to solve this problem, but very little was done.

The situation as it continues today is essentially a hypocritical one. It works, but with a lot of pain. I live in California. One of the largest industries here is agriculture. Eighty percent of the farm workers are here in an undocumented status. Mexicans look at that and say, “Hey, you guys aren’t serious about legal immigration. You want to use our labor because it’s cheap.” So we do have to come to grips with this.

Q: Was this used in Mexican politics to enhance the anti-American feeling of some politicians?

DAVIDOW: It wasn’t so much a policy of the Fox government to encourage anti- Americanism. But you had daily in the Mexican press a steady drumbeat of criticism of the U.S. for mistreatment of migrants. And then individual politicians would pick up on that and make it a big issue because you can’t lose votes in Mexico by criticizing the gringos.

“Every time there was a border patrol incident in which a Mexican would die, the Mexican assumption was that it was just plain and simple murder”

Q: Were you faced with the problem, particularly in Texas, of when a Mexican national gets in trouble, and the police arrest him and don’t inform the Mexican Embassy? I think of Americans, how they would suffer by this.

DAVIDOW: Well, actually you’ve outlined one of the biggest problems we’ve had that’s gone all the way up to the Supreme Court in the United States. The fact of the matter is that there are — especially in Texas — many people on death row who are foreign nationals, mostly Mexicans, who are there without having ever had their consular officers informed of their arrest….(Photo: Tomas Castelazo)

In fact, I have signed a number of petitions and briefs for court cases on this arguing that international treaties have to take precedent over local state law. But so far that hasn’t held sway. And just a few years ago, Texas executed a Mexican in that very position. He was certainly guilty of the crime, but had not received any consular assistance. And Mexicans are aggrieved by the lack of consular access, just as we get upset when we see Americans being treated poorly overseas….

We would just have to defend ourselves as best we could. It was obviously something I did not want to talk about very much because … I felt that we were on the wrong side of the issue. Almost on a daily basis, there were reports of Mexican migrants being mistreated by U.S. officials. There were a lot of deaths up near the border, mostly on the Mexican side because the migrants really were targets for criminals up there.

But every time there was a border patrol incident in which a Mexican would die, the Mexican assumption was that it was just plain and simple murder. In my experience, most border patrolmen were doing a pretty good job. But they were apprehending hundreds of thousands of people. And one can easily imagine that there were going to be some pretty frightening situations that might result in death. So that was a constant part of our life.

And, of course, hundreds of Mexicans died every year from natural causes in the attempt to cross the border, and, in the Mexican mind, these were all our fault as well….

Fox would constantly give speeches berating the U.S. about lack of progress on immigration when a better politician would have realized that it was time to call a halt to that, because it only served to call attention to his own incompetence or impotence. So things got bitter toward the time of my departure in mid-2002 and got worse after I left.

But all of this is ironical because every year Mexico’s ties, commercial ties, cultural ties, people ties, with the United States grew stronger and stronger. That’s just the nature of the beast.