Mexico and the United States have a historic opportunity to do something about their No. 1 shared problem: illegal immigration. Their recently announced plan to reduce tragic deaths among migrants is a good start.
When they meet again this September, Presidents Vicente Fox and George Bush will probe the issue more deeply. They're expected to unveil long-term proposals to regulate the people flow, including ways of increasing the legal movement of Mexicans northward.
The immediate concern, however, is the danger facing migrants trying to sneak into the US during the hot summer months. The death of 14 migrants in May from exposure and thirst in the Arizona desert left no doubt about the danger.
That incident spurred the plan for making the border-crossing less lethal, if still illegal. Among the proposed steps: more search and rescue efforts, with added reconnaissance flights, stronger efforts to warn migrants of the threats they'll encounter, and a crackdown on smugglers who collect hefty payments from the migrants in exchange for promised safe passage into the US.
Border Patrol agents in the heavily transited San Diego area will be issued nonlethal pepper-spray weapons to avoid shooting deaths in confrontations with rock-throwing migrants.
These are relatively easy steps, useful as they are. Illegal immigration springs from conditions on both sides of the border. The Mexican economy can't begin to absorb its excess labor force. Economic development south of the border, particularly in those regions that supply most of the migrants, is a critical need.
The US economy clearly can absorb millions of low-wage workers - workers only too happy to brave a dangerous border crossing for pay that may be 10 times what they can earn back home. Legalizing more of the flow of this transient work- force is one pragmatic option. Mr. Fox will push hard for this, and Mr. Bush is willing to listen.
That choice will face tough opposition. What ought to emerge is a compromise that offers some legalization while maintaining border vigilance, albeit with greater attention to humane safeguards for migrants.
Above all, both presidents must give the issue sustained attention, making it a catalyst for greater cross-border cooperation and long-term economic progress.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor