Finding a balance between protecting America’s borders and not singling out Mexican immigrants seems to be eluding our elected leaders in Washington.
Fear-mongering and scapegoating have replaced serious problem-solving, and Congress seems to have disregarded several historical parallels from the last 50 years. This is surprising, given that several key members of Congress have been in Washington at least that long.
From the highly politicized debate, one would think the U.S. and Mexico were the first two nations to ever confront this economic/immigration challenge. What to do?
There are at least two important precedents to which our illustrious leaders should look. The first is the postwar policy the U.S. implemented in Europe. At the end of World War II, the U.S. got a war-devastated Europe back on its feet by investing $20 billion (the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s terms) to Europe.
Of course, the Marshall Plan was more than magnanimous American philanthropy. Rebuilding Europe benefited the American economy as well. The money would be used to buy goods from the United States, and they had to be shipped across the Atlantic on American merchant ships.
The second more recent example also involves Europe. Only this time it is the Europeans themselves who played the role of sugar daddy. When the less developed countries of Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece joined the EU, the rich member countries were concerned about how such integration would affect them. They feared widespread immigration and the effect it would have on wage rates in their own country. Sound familiar?
The European solution was not more border patrols, nor fencing off most of Europe’s wealthier nations. Instead, they instituted their own version of the Marshall Plan.
Since the mid-’80s, the EU’s wealthier nations have spent hundreds of billions of dollars helping the poorer countries of Europe. The result is that Europe's poorer regions, including the four countries mentioned earlier, have been catching up with the EU average over the past two decades. According to the European Commission, the average GDP per capita of Europe's poorest regions rose from 54.2 percent of the EU average in 1987 to 61.1 percent 10 years later. The growth for poorer countries such as Spain and Ireland was even faster. Ireland’s per capita income is now higher than the EU average.
England, France, Germany and the other major EU nations did not spend months or years posturing on how to keep the Spaniards, Greeks, Irish and Portuguese out. Instead, they realized that investing in the economies of their neighbors was not only the right thing to do, it was in the long-term best interest of the Union and of each member country.
The other striking difference between the European approach to its poorer members and the current U.S. approach to Mexico is that Europe not only put up the money to fund development in the poorer nations, it opened borders to workers from those countries.
The free movement of people between the members of the EU is one of the basic objectives of the Union. As the EU’s principles state, “What has become true for capital, goods and services has to be a reality for people too.” The EU believed a single market could not be achieved while limitations to workforce mobility remained in existence. Amazingly, and I would say, admirably, the right to free movement has since been extended to include all categories of citizens, to dependents, to students and to those who are no longer economically active.
The increased Mexican immigration that especially border states like New Mexico have seen did not happen by accident. NAFTA decimated rural Mexican subsistence farming with the reduction of Mexican barriers to U.S. agricultural exports. These small farmers moved to Mexican cities to try to find work, placing additional pressure on unemployment and eventually pushing more and more Mexican workers north to support their families.
My question for the average American and the more outspoken members of Congress is “What would you do?” Faced with the reality of providing for your family in an economy that offers little hope for gainful employment, would you stay there and watch your family starve? Or would you take the chance of making it across a border where you could make more in a month than most local jobs (if you can find one) pay in a year? Be honest.
If we are not willing to agree that labor mobility should be part of the economic relationship with Mexico, then we should at least be open to helping Mexico stand on its own two feet economically. For what we spent in three months in Iraq, we could provide education and training for millions of Mexicans. For the cost of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, we could help Mexico build the transportation and social infrastructure that would help it compete globally and create jobs.
If we decide as a nation that the American dream is no longer on the menu for the thousands of Mexicans who have built our houses, served our food and cared for our loved ones, what then? How about helping to create a new Mexican dream? One where there are enough educational and employment opportunities in the land of their birth that they can stay there and raise their families. This might be the only realistic solution.
Do we, as Americans, have the character and the will to do for Mexico what we did 50 years ago for the Europeans in the Marshall Plan? An even tougher question: Are we willing to do what the wealthier European nations did for their own less fortunate neighbors over the last two decades?
If the answer is no, then the gutless, heartless, hare-brained ideas to keep Mexicans out will continue. So will the migration of Mexican workers, who, like most of our species, will do whatever it takes to provide for their families. What would you do?