On February 14, 1979, President Jimmy Carter flew to Mexico City for meetings with his Mexican counterpart, Jose Lopez Portillo. Their visit would be remembered more for its moments of awkwardness and tension than for anything they accomplished in an agenda that featured illegal immigration, trade, and drug trafficking.
Lopez Portillo wasted no time in setting an assertive tone he thought appropriate to the leader of a country that had longed nursed grievances against the United States and had recently discovered vast oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico. At an airport reception the told Carter that "the will to be friends . . . which means reciprocal respect and dignity in our dealings." Later he added, "It is difficult, particularly between neighbors, to maintain cordial and mutually advantageous relations in an atmosphere of mistrust or open hostility."
As the Washington Post's Ed Walsh reported, Carter avoided a direct response. "Instead, he delivered a rambling personal discourse, touching on his interest in jogging and an experience with 'Montezuma's revenge' during an earlier visit to Mexico."
The two leaders danced around the subject of illegal immigration, with neither having much to offer than the illusory hope that Mexico's new-found oil wealth would finance enough growth to diminish the exodus, which the year before had resulted in a million apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol.
During his first year in office, Carter had sent to Congress a proposal "to help markedly reduce the increasing flow of undocumented aliens in this country and to regulate the presence of millions of undocumented aliens already here." It called for amnesty for long-time illegals, temporary status for others, sanctions of employers who knowingly hired illegals, and stepped-up border enforcement. But the proposal stirred little enthusiasm in Congress and soon disappeared. In 1978 Congress called for a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy to study the matter.
Meanwhile, the numbers of Mexicans fleeing northward had continued to grow. During a dinner with Carter at the U.S. embassy, Lopez Portillo guardedly expressed resentment about the treatment of many of its people in the United States. He observed that "there are men who can buy men and there are men who have to sell themselves. And this happens very frequently with our poor people who go to the United States."
Carter avoided a response in kind. He pledged that he would enforce U.S. immigration laws, "as fairly and humanely as I can," while at the same time being sure to "protect the basic human rights of all people within the borders of my country."
The trip produced an announcement of Carter's appointment of former Florida Governor Reubin Askew as chairman of the Select Commission. Askew would accomplish almost nothing in the eight months he held the post before leaving to become U.S. trade representative. He would be succeeded by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame.
Lopez Portillo's grandiosity would lead his country into a financial chasm. Lavish spending that was accompanied by enormous graft and followed by a collapse in the price of oil forced a devastating peso devaluation. Lopez Portillo, who had promised to "defend the peso like a dog," would end his presidency in disgrace, retreating to a an opulent estate dubbed "Dog Hill" by countrymen who barked at him when he appeared in public.
Lopez Portillo died in 2004. He is remembered mostly for engaging in massive corruption, dashing the hopes of his people, and helping to set the stage for the fall of his Institutional Revolutionary Party. As the Los Angeles Times reported in its obituary, "Mexicans' disillusionment over the currency collapse during the final months of his term was a factor in the slow erosion of authority that eventually toppled the party, known by its Spanish initials of PRI, from power in the elections of 2000."