Commentary | Trade and Globalization

Dealing with Mexico

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Dealing With Mexico

By  Jeff Faux 

The election year clamor to address illegal immigration has left Washington’s normal political wiring in tangles. In December, House Republicans, sensing a wedge issue advantage in an otherwise grim political year, split with their historic business allies and passed a draconian bill to criminalize and deport all 11 million undocumented workers and build higher walls along the Mexican border to make sure they didn’t come back.

In the Senate, Democrat Edward Kennedy and Republican John McCain propose that undocumented workers be given an opportunity for citizenship and that “guest worker” programs be expanded. The Bush administration wants more temporary “guest workers” but not amnesty for those already here. The AFL-CIO would provide a path to legalization for those already here, but not bring in more. Several unions that recently left the labor federation support more guest workers, allying them with the Chamber of Commerce.

The political confusion is understandable because none of these proposals will solve the basic problem. Higher walls and more police will certainly make crossing the frontier more difficult, but recent history tells us they will not stop the illegal influx of immigrants any more than more enforcement has stopped the illegal flow of drugs. Neither will mass deportation, guest worker programs or amnesty get at the root causes, which are poverty and the lack of job opportunities south of the border.

Mexico is not the only source of illegal immigration, but it is by far the largest—representing over three-quarters of the total. Some 40 percent of the over 100 million people still living in Mexico say they would come to the United States if they had the opportunity, which can be bought for the roughly $2,500 or so it costs for a “coyote” to lead them across the border. Last year at least 400 died in the attempt.

This was not supposed to happen. Thirteen years ago we were assured that the North American Free Trade Agreement would transform Mexico into a prosperous middle-class society. “There will be less illegal immigration,” promised President Bill Clinton, “because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home.” Mexican president Carlos Salinas told Americans it was a choice between getting Mexican tomatoes or tomato-pickers.

Unfortunately, NAFTA did not deliver. Economic growth has been sluggish and its benefits have largely accrued to the wealthy, for whom out-migration acts as a social safety valve. Ambitious, energetic workers who cross over to the United States might otherwise cause political trouble for the elites who have made Mexico one of the most unequal societies in the western hemisphere. The remittances migrant workers send home to their families also keeps the lid on social unrest.

NAFTA stands in vivid contrast to the experience of the economic integration of Western Europe, which actually provided for the free movement of people across borders. Originally there was great fear that Germany, France and the other rich nations would be flooded with workers from Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. To avoid this, the European community provided funds for economic development programs which stimulated job growth in the poorer nations. It turned out that when offered economic opportunities at home, most people would rather stay home.

It is time for the leaders on this continent to acknowledge that NAFTA has not fulfilled its promises and go back to the drawing boards. We need a New Deal between the United States and Mexico. It should include a transfer of funds for infrastructure, education and other public investments aimed at stimulating job growth and rising wages in Mexico. In exchange, Mexican leaders would have to agree on enforceable protections for free collective bargaining, minimum wages and other policies that help ensure that workers’ incomes would rise along with economic growth.

Such a new deal with Mexico would not be easy. But it would be far better to address the source of the problem directly than continue with the illusion that it can be solved simply by new immigration laws and ever-taller fences. So long as the Mexican economy cannot provide its people with economic opportunity, they will keep coming.

Jeff Faux was founding president and now Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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