Immigration Is Not the Only Problem
Thursday, May 26, 2005; 10:30 PM
WASHINGTON -- Whether you believe Mexican immigrants help or hurt the United States, there is one incontrovertible truth: work here pays much, much better. A low-skilled Mexican worker in this country earns five to six times as much as he would back home, assuming he or she could find a comparable job.
This truth is so obvious it seems a cliche and yet it remains mostly absent from the current debate on how to reform U.S. immigration. For all the talk around the country of border enforcement, guest worker programs, employer sanctions and driver's licensing restrictions, the sad fact is that none of these "solutions'' addresses the root of the problem -- a persistent and large U.S.-Mexican income disparity.
Even the most comprehensive and progressive immigration reform proposal in years, introduced this month by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is more concerned with making U.S. immigration policy more humane than dealing with income disparity between the United States and Mexico. The bill crafts a guest worker program -- creating new visa categories and quotas and a secure identification system for employers -- but only provides a vague indication that income disparity might be a problem worth taking on.
Why such reluctance? How can a proposal that purports to reduce the flow of illegal Mexican workers to the United States not take a stab at the root cause? Won't better conditions for immigrant workers here only be an invitation for more illegal migrants from Mexico, as the argument goes, as long as wage disparity remains unaddressed?
To alter income disparity, it is obvious that Mexico must reduce its development gap and raise incomes. What is just as apparent is that Americans do not feel, at least at the moment, that they have a responsibility or even an interest in reducing that gap through investment of money and expertise. They don't feel the same obligation they once felt, say, after World War II for Europe, or that the European Union took on when it bolstered its poorest members. Mexico and the United States may share a 2,000-mile border but their sense of a shared future runs two two inches deep.
There is a strong sense in this country that Mexico's problems are of its own making, and must be solved by Mexico. That is why former Bush administration official Richard A. Falkenrath and others say a significant infusion of U.S. aid into Mexico is a "nonstarter.'' Indeed, Mexico desperately needs to collect more taxes and reform its energy sector and labor laws -- healing itself by removing structural constraints that make it more a third-world nation than the economic powerhouse it could become.
The North American Free Trade Agreement signed more than 10 years ago by Canada, Mexico and the United States was supposed to generate more jobs in Mexico, raise salaries and therefore reduce people's incentive to emigrate. That proved to be wishful thinking. In fact, NAFTA has not generated the number of new jobs predicted, nor has it alleviated rural poverty in many areas of Mexico. That would require, according to a soon-to-be-released report on NAFTA by the Institute for International Economics, "a sustained period of strong growth and substantial income transfers to poorer states.''
There are some in this country, a minority to be sure, who say Washington must get involved more directly. Otherwise, they argue, Mexico won't be able to reduce disparities at least for another 100 years. Among them is Robert Pastor, a former Carter administration official who has tirelessly argued for a North American Investment Fund. Pastor cites a 2000 World Bank estimate that Mexico would need $20 billion per year for a decade in essential infrastructure and educational projects to reduce 100 years to 10.
Pastor is under no illusions that such a fund will be created any time soon. Certainly the Bush administration is not talking about any such ideas within the recently launched Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, the latest ambitiously named project that won't even touch on immigration, even though immigration is directly connected to security and prosperity.
The administration and Congress are under little pressure to deepen the U.S. commitment to Mexico by a public increasingly fearful and resentful toward immigrants, particularly Mexicans. If anything, such sentiments prolong illegal immigration, in the sense that they distract citizens and leaders alike into thinking that if you put up enough barriers, Mexicans will go away.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.