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Mexican officials plan for US law's uncertain effects

Genaro Borrego Estrada, governor of the Mexican state of Zacatecas, says flatly that United States immigration-reform legislation, designed to deter illegal immigration, is not going to work. ``It's a law that goes against the current,'' he says. If millions of Mexicans have crossed their northern border to find work, he adds, it is because thousands of US businesses have welcomed their labor.

``With or without the Simpson-Rodino law,'' he says, referring to the law's chief sponsors, Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming and Rep. Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey, ``[Mexicans] are going to keep [crossing] and Americans, I think, are going to continue employing them.''

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Mr. Borrego Estrada's point of view is widely held throughout Mexico.

An elderly Mexican sitting in the sun outside the Spanish colonial building where the governor has his office recently told an American visitor, ``We'll go north anyway, because you need these'' - and he held up two strong, weathered arms.

Yet at the same time, Mexican government officials are beginning to turn some attention to the effect US immigration reform will have on their country.

Mexicans who are having trouble finding work in the US or who have been fired as a result of employers' fears of the new law are beginning to return south. As sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens begin taking effect next month, the number of returnees is likely to increase.

The Mexican government earlier this month created an interministerial commission to study the law's impact and to help provide transportation, lodging, and employment information to those returning.

Part of the government's plan is to encourage returning Mexicans to seek employment in the maquiladoras, or foreign-owned assembly plants, that are concentrated mostly along the US-Mexico border.

The maquiladoras, now numbering more than 1,000 with more than 300,000 employees, constitute one of the few bright spots in Mexico's otherwise stricken economy.

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Critics, especially in opposition parties, say the government is not doing enough, however, and are calling for emergency work programs to soften the impact of the returnees at a time when unemployment is already high. There is also concern that Mexicans returning from the US with new skills could displace other Mexican workers from the higher-paying labor - a situation some say could lead to social unrest.

In Zacatecas, a central Mexican state of 1.3 million people, Governor Borrego Estrada says it is difficult for the government to offer a specific ``plan of action'' when the numbers of returnees, and the rate at which they will return, are unknown. The governor, who was elected to his office in September, was previously a member of the national Chamber of Deputies and an official in Mexico's ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

An under-industrialized state where agriculture and mining are the major employers, Zacatecas figures among the top half-dozen Mexican states whose residents leave for work in the US.

Still, Mr. Borrego Estrada says he does not anticipate a ``sudden, massive return'' of people to the state.

``We will see an increase in the numbers who are unemployed or underemployed,'' he says, ``but I do not think there will be the major impact some people are suggesting.''

Despite the absence of any plan for reintegrating returning Mexicans, Borrego Estrada says his state does expect to follow three specific ``avenues'' in order to ``convert what could eventually be a problem into something positive for Zacatecas.''

He says the state will employ more people in public-works projects, such as road or sewage-line construction; direct returning laborers to new areas of irrigated agriculture the state is now developing; and promote development of the maquiladora industry in Zacatecas.

Right now the state has only a few maquilas, as the foreign-owned plants are called, but the governor noted that plans for two more have been announced recently. One will be here in the city of Zacatecas, to manufacture clothing for export to Europe; the other, which will assemble electric interrupters, is to be built in Concepci'on del Oro, a small town in the northern part of the state.

In Concepci'on del Oro, a mining and commercial center of 10,000 inhabitants, Mayor Luis Garc'ia Espinosa takes time out from an afternoon baseball game with some local children to discuss US immigration reform.

He says its impact on his town will not be as great as it might have been a year or two ago, when the Texas economy went bad, reducing the job opportunities there.

Mayor Garc'ia says that, whereas Zacatecans from other parts of the state tended to go to California and agricultural jobs, those from his town often went to Texas, where their experience in the gold and silver mines gave them marketable skills in oil and construction.

Many of those people have already come back, he says, or have gone to other cities in Mexico to find work. He adds that the new maquila, an American-owned plant to employ 600 initially, will probably provide little opportunity to Mexicans returning to Concepci'on del Oro because most of the employees will be women. ``It will meet an important need of ours,'' Garc'ia says, ``since women have a harder time going to other cities in Mexico to find work. But it won't help people coming back.''

Looking broadly at the US law, Garc'ia, like Governor Borrego Estrada and other Mexicans, says it will not work. He says the ``going and coming'' of Mexican laborers across the Rio Grande has made for a ``symbiotic'' relationship. ``It takes care of some of the unemployment here, sure, but [Americans] also get their fruit picked and their roads built.''

Also, like other Mexican officials, Garc'ia criticizes the ``unilateral'' nature of the US action when the issue being addressed is a ``bilateral'' one.

Yet even in his criticism of the US, the mayor maintains his aplomb, or perhaps what some would call fatalism. None of it matters anyway, he says, because in the end the decades-old economic factors will prove more powerful than any political restraints. ``It will hurt us for a year or two,'' he says, ``but it's going to be a very expensive law for the United States. Then you will once again want our laborers, and the law will be changed or forgotten.''

Second of two articles. The first one appeared May 26.

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