MEXICO CITY – An immigration bill that appears headed for approval in the U.S. Senate has drawn the ire of Mexican officials who claim that the initiative's heavy focus on border security is harmful to the relationship between the two countries.
Foreign Relations Secretary José Meade said that instead of expanding a border fence, as proposed in the bill, the United States should modernize international bridges linking the two countries in order to expedite commerce.
"Fences do not unite," Meade said while reading a statement to reporters during a news conference where he didn't take questions.
"Fences are not the solution to migration and are not consistent with a modern and secure border," Meade added. "They do not contribute to the regional development both countries seek to propel."
It was the first time the Mexican government had publicly addressed current U.S. legislation on immigration reform. But the southern neighbor has weighed in previously on the U.S. legislative process, a move that did not play well with many in Congress who felt Mexico was meddling in domestic affairs.
A respected Mexican columnist and academic, Lorenzo Meyer, said on Mexican radio that in retaliation for the bill, Mexico should kick out of the country the CIA and Defense Department agents helping the fight against drug cartels.
Meyer added, jokingly, that Mexico should also stop allowing American retirees to move to the country.
The U.S. Senate could have a final vote Thursday or Friday on the bill, which could offer a chance at citizenship for millions living in the country illegally while also calling for beefing up border security.
Labeled a "surge" by supporters -- after the 2007 troop deployment to Iraq -- the bill would add nearly 20,000 Border Patrol officers and fund the completion of 700 miles of border fencing and 24-hour surveillance flights by drones.
Even if the Senate approves the bill currently being debated, the U.S. House still has to approve its own version, no easy feat given that conservative Republicans in the majority oppose citizenship for anyone living in the country illegally.
Meade acknowledged the bill might benefit several million Mexican migrants living in the United States, but he said the measure "that could affect ties between communities move away from the principles of shared responsibility and neighborliness."
Meade's statements are the first of their kind from the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has mostly avoided becoming involved in discussion about the immigration north of the border.
The president's silence has drawn criticism across the country for failing to speak out more forcefully against the bill.
"The passivity and negligence of his government is incomprehensible; it's as if this had nothing to do with him, as if this was not going to seriously affect millions of Mexicans," said Jorge Ramos, news anchor of the Spanish-language network Univision, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Peña Nieto's passivity on the issue may be due in part to the backlash his predecessors received for voicing their opinions on U.S. immigration policy. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox was hit with criticism for conservative U.S. lawmakers when he lobbied Americans to accept immigration reform in 2001.
"Mexico can't say nothing in the face of a reform that includes doubling the number of Border Patrol agents," Jorge Castañeda, Fox's former foreign secretary who now teaches at New York University, told the Los Angeles Times. "It strikes me as shameful."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.