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 V.16 No.17 | April 26 - May 2, 2007 

Ortiz y Pino

South of the Border

Why we should build gateways, not walls

A friend forwarded an e-mail containing a link to a website that documents what we are spending on the Iraq adventure. The numbers change each second as the totals are updated in real time. The figure spins as wildly as an odometer during a sports car test drive, reflecting the cost’s exponential climb.

This morning’s total was more than $425 billion for the four years we’ve been occupying Iraq, a rate of $2 billion a week or more than $100 billion a year. Even the world’s richest nation (does that still describe us? I’m not sure now that Halliburton’s relocated its headquarters to Dubai, but it might still be accurate) can’t expect to sustain that level of profligacy forever.

But as economically damaging as the invasion, occupation and regime change underway in Iraq are, we should also be aware of another, potentially even more costly expenditure being undertaken by the president and his crew: the construction of the infamous “wall” on our southern border, intended (pretended?) to stop the flow of undocumented workers from Mexico and points south into our country.

This venture doesn’t look at first blush to be all that expensive, though even the $70-billion estimates the GOP Congress attached to it last year should have been enough to send a wave of shudders, gasps and palpitations through our numb collective corpus.

However, the true cost of that initiative, if we actually persist in building it, will have to include all the collateral damage it will create. And those figures are certainly astronomical: loss of a huge chunk of our productive (and don’t forget cheap) workforce; decreased revenues paid into the Social Security trust fund and federal, state and local tax coffers by undocumented workers; loss of market revenue for all the businesses that are geared to serve a shrinking immigrant population.

Then there are the indirect blows to our national reputation, integrity and image. We could see diminished tourism by international visitors. We might expect to encounter retaliation around the globe in the form of increased barriers to trade, loss of markets to competitors from other countries, a brain drain of creative young people diverted elsewhere to universities and careers perceived as more receptive to them than the U.S.

It’s hard to fix a definite price tag to those costs, but they're not imaginary. The certain effect of the “wall” (whether or not it succeeds in slowing the flow of undocumented entrants slipping across) can be predicted: economic self-injury.

Michael Morris, a UNM professor and Fulbright scholar who’s heading back to Spain in a few months, has seen firsthand how Spain and other European countries have responded to their own immigration concerns.

Like us, the Iberian Peninsula has been struggling with the results of a wave of non-European immigrants entering from Arab, African and Latin American countries by every conceivable channel, legal and extra-legal.

There was even a proposal put forth by the previous Spanish government about 10 years ago to build a steel wall intended to block entry to the country by small boats crossing from Morocco, the Spanish analog for Mexico. And the Spanish Parliament has had its share of angry debates over acculturation strategies, guest worker programs, penalties for hiring undocumented laborers, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, and frustration over crime, drugs and disease.

Yet the Spanish government eventually determined, as did most European Union governments, that their attitude toward the immigration dilemma should be to hang the welcome sign, not erect walls or barricades. And so should ours if we expect to continue riding the economic wave up, up, up instead of getting dumped off.

One simple fact explains why this is so: Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. population saw a net increase of 30 million people in the national workforce (the effect of the baby boomer generation maturing to productive ages). But in the 20 years from 2000 to 2020 (due to those same baby boomers retiring and our dipping birth rate), we can predict an increase of only three million workers … without immigration.

Not only does that reduced pool of employees threaten to slow economic growth (and drive up wages as employers bid-up salaries for increasingly scarce expertise), but it puts added stress on our social security and pension plans, which will see more and more retirees carried on the backs of fewer workers.

So if much of our future workforce is going to come from south of the border, wouldn’t it be wiser policy to build a welcome gate to it rather than a locked gate? And if we want to have a well-prepared workforce, shouldn’t we put money into schools in Mexico that will teach English?

If we provided a corps of thousands of North American young people who were offered to the Mexican government to work in their schools and to instruct Mexican students (or Guatemalan, Salvadoran or Honduran students) in English, wouldn’t we be providing them the basic skill that would assist our future employment source to make the adjustment to life in this country more competently?

The side benefits, of course, could be to build understanding between our peoples, to create relationships that could mature into joint economic development and to reduce the pressure for unskilled workers to cross over under the most dangerous and oppressive of conditions.

This approach would cost a fraction of a wall. It would work much better.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 
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