Near the dawn of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, British cryptographers intercepted a coded telegram from Berlin to the German embassy in Mexico City. In London, they broke the code, read the message and, after some dithering, they passed the telegram along to President Wilson.
This extraordinary telegram was from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, and it instructed his diplomats to “make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”
Soon after Wilson got the news, so did the newspapers. Their publication of this remarkable document “the Zimmermann telegram” currently resides in the National Archives ignited a political firestorm in the United States. As a result, the coals of anti-German sentiment were still glowing bright a month later when a U-boat torpedoed the liner Lusitania.
Between the threat of a German-backed Mexican invasion of Texas and the tragic loss of American life on the Atlantic, the United States was propelled into World War I.
Of course, exposure of the German plot quickly nullified its impact, and anyway, the Mexico of 1917 was rent by revolution and its fractured leadership never truly considered joining the Axis or storming the Alamo a second time, but an essential question lingers: Why was hostility between two neighbors on the North American continent such that a distant European power took notice and concluded that one could be coaxed into bloody war against the other?
Nowhere is this more evident than in our handling of illegal immigration. Mexican nationals cross the border illegally and then are embraced by our employers. Our economy needs them, but the system of illegal employment demeans them as human beings and makes a mockery of the rule of law. For their part, Mexican citizens have picked our crops, built our homes and cared for our children, and all without the protection of our laws.
It seems to me that these problems were the inevitable consequence of our divergent economies. As the 20th century favored North American capitalism with an explosion of jobs, growth and opportunity, Mexico fettered itself with socialism and corruption, and it fell, and was led, into terrible poverty. If I had two little children in Mexico and we lived in the conditions endured by many Mexican citizens, no power on Earth could prevent me from crossing the Rio Grande for work. For millions of Mexicans, that was the choice: Stay south and suffer, or flee north and prosper.
The beginning of the 21st century provides a unique opportunity to fundamentally alter our relations and dramatically improve the lives of both Mexicans and Americans. The elections in Mexico broke an 80-year-old political choke hold by the elite and installed an outsider of remarkable vision and energy, Vicente Fox, in the presidency. Similarly, the U.S. election produced a leader in President Bush who brings a deep understanding of Mexico based on personal experience as governor of Texas and a commitment to change.
Fortunately, things are changing on the border already. The power of trade is such that it tore down the Berlin Wall and dismembered the Soviet Union, and now it is transforming South Texas through the North American Free Trade Agreement into a place of bustle and opportunity for our people. To enforce our laws, the Border Patrol has been doubled in size, and the U.S. Customs Service is next.
For those who long to gain control of our border, trade and economic growth in Mexico offer the long-term solution. Expansion of the Border Patrol and Customs Service are necessary, but it seems clear that they cannot succeed if we continue to ignore the hypocritical system by which U.S. employers, our government and our nation profit from illegal immigrants while winking at the law that prohibits their presence.
The peculiar lie in which workers assume false identities and flash phony Social Security cards in order to shield themselves and relieve employers of legal responsibility only fuels widespread contempt for our law by both Mexicans and Americans.
We need new thinking and wholesale change not an amnesty and not a revived bracero program in the way the United States invites and profits from the labor of Mexican citizens. We need a guest-worker program where Mexican citizens can work legally, acquire skills, accumulate wealth and then go home to help build up their own economy.
How might it work?
Most importantly at the beginning, undocumented workers already in the United States would get a one-time opportunity to enroll, and would be encouraged by the Mexican and U.S. governments to take it.
Workers would be issued identification cards that serve as their documentation for temporary employment, primarily but not exclusively in the service and agricultural areas. They would acquire a one-year work permit, which under certain circumstances could be renewed. The number of guest workers permitted in the United States would be adjusted annually in response to changes in U.S. economic conditions, including unemployment rates by regions of the country.
Workers would be fully covered by U.S. law, including wage and hour laws. These laws and the prohibition against those who continue to hire illegally would be strictly enforced.
Such a program would recognize that payroll taxes paid by illegal aliens and their employers currently produce no benefits for the workers, and it would replace the tax levy with a program to fund emergency health care and a worker-owned retirement program. Employers and workers would continue to pay 15.3 percent of wages half from each in payroll deductions, but rather than sending money off, never to be seen again by those who earned it, the funds would first finance health screening and emergency health care. The bulk of the 15.3 percent of wages would go into an IRA-type of account that would be in the worker’s name. The IRA would be managed by professional money managers and split between stocks and bonds. The money in the investment account would be paid in full to guest workers when they left the program and returned to Mexico.
And, finally, penalties for employers who violated provisions of the program would be strictly enforced.
Mr. Fox is specific in what he expects from a guest-worker program. He does not seek to resuscitate the bracero program of the 1940s and early ‘50s, nor do I. Understandably, I think, he wants full protection of U.S. wage-and-hour laws for his citizens who work in the United States. And he wants Mexican men and women to gain skills and accumulate wealth so they can come home and build a new economy in Mexico.
Mr. Fox has promised to be a spokesman for such a program and to personally encourage his countrymen in the United States to sign up.
Needless to say, there are plenty of detractors. Some say no, a guest-worker program is just a new way to truck in Mexicans to take American jobs, but under my bill, no job with an American willing and able to fill it will go to a guest worker. However, I think it is delusional not to recognize that illegal aliens already go to work each day at millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, not to mention the conscious approval of companies and entire communities. Like it or not, they constitute an integral part of our economy.
Those who profiteer off illegal workers by charging $2,500 to smuggle them into the United States, or who demand $1 for every $5 that they send back to their families in Mexico, will oppose a guest-worker program, too. So will those who have a political agenda based on granting citizenship to illegal aliens. But I do not believe the smugglers, profiteers and those with a political ax to grind speak for the real interests of either the United States or Mexico.
While a rebirth of freedom and opportunity in Mexico, by Mexico, for Mexicans is the only true solution to illegal immigration, I believe that a fair guest-worker program can appeal to the best in us and bring that day closer. A competently run program would help re-establish respect for U.S. law by restoring dignity and efficiency to a sham system. It would give new will to the enforcement of our laws against illegal entry into the United States. And it would allow vital U.S. industries to put food on our tables and roofs over our heads at a cost that working American families can afford to pay. That’s why I plan to make this program a reality.
Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, “As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.” With new presidents in both countries, this is a unique moment in our history, and it beckons us to rethink our approach to immigration issues.
Let’s not allow the naysayers and demagogues to keep us from seizing this historic opportunity.
Phil Gramm is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Texas.