Since his election in 2000 on a promise to reform Mexico's corrupt government and sluggish economy, Vicente Fox has learned much about the art of the possible. Stymied by congressional opposition and an electoral setback, Fox has just three years to win some positive incremental changes.
He's in Arizona today looking for some help on border and trade issues, and he'll probably get some from Gov. Janet Napolitano. A more realistic U.S. immigration policy and more robust trade would help both countries, even though fundamental reform in Mexico remains elusive.
A guest-worker program that accommodates this country's insatiable demand for entry-level workers and Mexico's oversupply of such workers would be a good start. Napolitano supports it, as do several members of Arizona's congressional delegation who are sponsoring legislation to create a guest-worker program.
Freer trade is also a plus for both sides of the border. Arizona businesses and industries export about $3 billion worth of goods to Mexico each year. The Mexican market is responsible for employing thousands of Arizonans, and the more that market expands, the better for our state's economy.
There's no denying the interconnectedness of the Arizona and Mexican economies, and there's no point disparaging it. Although the flood of illegal immigrants across our common border is unnerving in terms of national security and disruptive in terms of providing essential public services, our best hope is to control it rather than stop it. A guest-worker program, together with tougher border enforcement, would be a realistic step toward just such control.
Fox's groundbreaking visit to Arizona today — it's the first time a sitting Mexican president has paid an official visit to Arizona — is among several to other border states and Washington, where he's expected to push immigration-reform legislation. Presumably, Fox will remind President Bush of then-candidate Bush's support in 2000 for a guest-worker program.
What would not be helpful at this point is to lecture Fox about Mexico's political and economic woes. He's given every indication since he ran as a reform candidate of that he understands those dysfunctions. His ability to change things being limited by resistance from within, he's looking for, and deserves to get, some cooperation from the United States for incremental changes that can foster improvements in Mexico.
Immigration reform and freer trade would have positive economic effects on both sides of the border. And in the long run, a rising middle class in Mexico would do more to force institutional change there than a string of reform-minded presidents. It also would relieve immigration pressures.
At bottom, it is in Arizona's and America's interests to help Vicente Fox achieve whatever is left of his tattered agenda that is still realistically within reach.