Oil for Illegals? Mexico, and the Democrats, have a fit over House vote

By Mark Krikorian on May 14, 2003

National Review Online, May 14, 2003

Last Thursday, the House International Relations Committee narrowly passed a resolution introduced by Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina (R.) requiring that any amnesty deal for the five million Mexican illegal aliens in the United States be linked to an opening of Mexico's state-controlled oil industry to investment by U.S. companies.

Then the fun started.

The Mexican press exploded in outrage. "Blackmail!" cried the archbishop of Mexico City. "Stupidity!" said a representative of the oil workers' union. A plot to "annex Latin America," intoned Nobel peace-prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. An example of U.S. lawmakers' "ignorance," "arrogance," and "imperial vision," according to a Mexican senator. The head of the leftist PRD called on President Vicente Fox to "put on his pants" - act like a man - and oppose the proposal. Fox finally joined the tsunami of criticism on Sunday and categorically rejected any privatization of Pemex, Mexico's state oil monopoly.

None of this should come as a surprise. Mexico's seizure of foreign oil companies' assets in 1938 is central to modern Mexican nationalism; state control of the oil industry is actually written into the constitution. What's more, there are midterm elections for the lower house of Mexico's Congress coming up in July. Embracing privatization of Pemex would not be a vote getter, to say the least. And according to William and Mary political scientist George Grayson, author of Oil and Mexican Foreign Policy, "unless the PAN makes notable strides in these contests, the beleaguered Fox will find himself a lame duck with three years-plus remaining in his term."

But however outraged the Mexicans are, and however different these two issues are, it only seems fair to link them. After all, Mexico is asking us to start down the path of eliminating our southern border and embracing a European Union-style shared sovereignty - the least we can expect is for them also to eliminate barriers that are important to their nation.

Nor has this idea come out of the blue. In the July 30, 2001, Weekly Standard, economist Irwin Stelzer suggested just such an approach. Stelzer wrote that "monopoly oil prices" could offset a good part of the economic growth assumed in the president's tax cut and that "the finger of blame points squarely at Mexico." He wrote that we should insist that Mexico cooperate with the United States and other pro-free market countries and stop supporting the OPEC oil cartel and its leaders such as the Marxist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Stelzer said that before Bush strikes any deal on amnesty, "he should insist on the free movement of ...oil from Mexico" and the opening of Mexico's oil resources to American investment.

While Mexican opposition may be no surprise, the Democrats' furor over the oil-for-illegals approach is, given the importance of Mexico's oil to the United States and the huge costs that an illegal-alien amnesty would impose on us. After all, they have no chance whatever of getting an amnesty through Congress without some kind of sweetener, and this would seem an obvious candidate.

But it is not to be. Rep. Robert Menendez was so angry that he held a press conference last Friday denouncing the resolution. He was joined by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and Silvestre Reyes; the latter, a past head of the Hispanic Caucus, said the amendment was an "insult" to Mexico and indicative of an "insane and out of control attitude on the part of a country [the United States] that believes that as a matter of public foreign policy bullying is acceptable." It was Menendez who prompted the whole dust-up in the first place; Ballenger's amendment, to the State Department appropriations bill, was offered as a substitute to a proposal by Menendez calling for the conclusion of a "migration" accord which, among other things, "respect[ed] the human dignity of all migrants, regardless of their status" - i.e., an amnesty for illegal aliens.

The partisan nature of the vote suggests the depth of opposition in the president's own party for his preferred immigration policies. The only Republican to vote against Ballenger's oil-for-illegals linkage was Pete King (who has a career grade of F on the reformist Americans for Better Immigration website). Even such flamboyant Republican supporters of high immigration as Ileana Ros Lehtinen (career grade of F), Chris Smith (D-), and Steve Chabot (D+) voted for the linkage.

However bad the immigration positions of these Republicans, they at least understand that a massive illegal-alien amnesty must be met with some gesture from Mexico. But the Democratic-party/Mexican-government position on amnesty for illegals appears to be all quid from the United States and no quo from Mexico.

Stay tuned.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.