Border Walls

If the Bush administration doesn’t revise its border control legislation or enact a guest worker program by Jan. 18, it will force Mexico’s next president to adopt the rhetoric of anti-American nationalism.

Mexicans high and low are piqued because of a measure by Republicans James Sensenbrenner and Tom Tancredo, HR 4437, which calls for, among other things, erecting double walls along some 700 miles of the Mexican-American border.

American Congress-watchers say that the bill doesn’t stand much chance of approval in the Senate, but that’s beside the point: in Mexico, the idea that powerful Americans want to build more walls is enough to spark outcry, and the bill’s dim Senate prospects only heighten the gains to be made from denouncing it.

Nothing promulgated by the American government has inspired such furor since the early 1960’s, when passions ran high over Chamizál, an El Paso-Juarez neighborhood whose nationality the shifting Rio Grande placed in doubt.

President Bush gave his nod to the Sensenbrenner bill, though, he said, only as a preamble to the guest-worker program that he promised Mexico six years ago, but hasn’t produced.

Democrats and Mexican-American groups usually oppose labor import schemes that do not open routes to U.S. citizenship, but Mexico’s governors and bishops, pundits and cartoonists-even on the left–generally favor the guest-worker idea. In their eyes, the solution to Mexico’s problems, they say, cannot depend on anybody’s permanent immigration to the United States: the Rio Grande is not the River Jordan.

The restrictive provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill-which also makes undocumented immigration a felony-have caused Mexican officialdom to break with its traditional doctrine, which holds that all nations have the right to control their borders. Even pro-American, lame-duck president Vicente Fox has joined the outcry, dispatching foreign service personnel to European and South American capitals to request parliamentary resolutions lamenting the very idea of the walls.

The Bush administration has thus far avoided a more severe thrashing only because of a holiday season gag order. Mexico’s most ardent spokesmen-the candidates for its July presidential election-have been under a rule of silence since a few days before the Sensenbrenner bill was approved.

By the terms of Mexican electoral law, candidates were forbidden to campaign, even to issue press statements, on Dec. 11. They can’t open their mouths again until Jan. 18.

When they do, we can expect that the United States will get a drubbing as never in forty years.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the center-left Partido Revolucionario Demócrata-AMLO of the PRD-is leading in polls by about ten points. His nearest rival is Roberto Madrazo, standard-bearer of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which held the Mexican presidency for 71 years. Until its latter days, the PRI never passed up a chance to bash los gringos, and the signs are that it won’t miss the opportunity when campaigning resumes.

By declaring his scorn of the Sensenbrenner plan, President Fox, of the Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN, left little room for its candidate, Felipe Calderón, to play the pro-American moderate-and doing so would only cost him votes, anyhow.

But the crux of the matter is that AMLO stands at the top of the polls despite playing the moderate’s role himself. When he was its mayor, among other things, AMLO hired Rudy Giuliana to deter Mexico City’s kidnappers, muggers and squeegee men. AMLO has called for renegotiation, not repudiation, of the unpopular NAFTA agreement, and he’s not promising to shred his IMF credit card, as Argentina’s Kirchner and Brazil’s Lula da Silva recently did.

While promoting social welfare programs and calling himself a leftist, the Clintonesque AMLO been so careful not to offend Mexico’s upper and middle classes that Subcomandate Marcos has laid down arms and come out of the jungle for a six-month national tour against all three candidates and their parties. Mexico’s electoral system, he says, is irrelevant; only people’s movements count for anything, he says.

To prove that he is not a vendepatria, or “fatherland seller,” the PAN’s Calderón will have to condemn the Sensenbrenner proposal with adjectives more blistering that those muttered by the timid Fox. To steal votes from the PRD, Madrazo will play the PRI’s nationalist cards. To distinguish himself from the PRI, and to blunt the Subcomandante’s barbs, AMLO will have to adopt an emphatic rhetoric akin to that deployed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

In a word, Bush will have to swiftly pass a guest worker proposal, or Mexico’s presidential hopefuls will jostle to the left, taking credit for forcing Uncle Sam to back down on the Sensenbrenner bill.

Sensible heads at the State Department must rue that the House didn’t take an early Christmas vacation. But in November, wasn’t the State Department defending the use of torture?

Castles have walls and dungeons, and dungeons have racks and screws. As soon as Mexico returns to the hustings, its electorate will hear that Bush, far from “building a bridge to the 21st century,” as sweet-mouthed Clinton always promised to do, is laying bricks to wall the United States inside of the illusions of medieval days.

DICK J. REAVIS is a Texas journalist who is currently an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at mailto:



Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.