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November 29, 2007

Ring Around the Immigration Culprit

Tony Soltero

For all the constant talk about the immigration issue, it's amazing how shallow and superficial the discussion about it remains both locally and nationally.

The debate reverberates at an emotional level, with almost no attention paid to the larger dynamics that drive immigration patterns, and what these dynamics can tell us about the potential effectiveness of the "solutions" being tossed around.

Suppose that, for some unfathomable reason, our federal government mandated a speed limit of 20 miles per hour on our Interstates. Such a law would accomplish one of two things: either it would heavily cripple our main transportation network and distribution system, or it would turn us into a nation of lawbreakers.

And suppose that the entire debate about how to deal with this "Interstate problem" revolved around how many state troopers we should station per mile marker to enforce the speed limit; or how many detention centers we should build to house the "illegal drivers;" or whether we should just shut down the roads completely. And suppose that any leader who meekly suggested raising the speed limit to something reasonable was savagely attacked as "soft on leadfoots."

That is, in essence, the state of our immigration "debate." Our current immigration laws are a tossed salad of anachronistic policies that might have made sense when they were first enacted in the mid-1960's, but have proven woefully inadequate to the realities of the 21st-century economy.

But instead of discussing how we can fix the laws to accommodate the effects of NAFTA and the other globalization forces that have triggered such a huge upsurge in border-crossing, we're instead talking about putting up fences, or even more violent "solutions" that dehumanize immigrants and fail to acknowledge the very real external push-and-pull factors that drive transnational migration.

So, okay! Let's say we build a southern border strip that makes the Iron Curtain look like a picket fence. Well, that'll certainly make the rabid anti-immigrant zealots feel better about themselves, at least temporarily. But such a measure, viscerally satisfying as it may be to some, is doomed to ineffectiveness because it would do absolutely nothing to address the underlying factors behind immigration.

A border fence would keep illegal immigrants out about as effectively as gun-control laws prevent murders; or about as well as drug-control laws reduce marijuana consumption. It's a feel-good non-solution. After all, the Pacific Ocean doesn't keep illegal Chinese immigrants from latching onto human traffickers to come to America.

Any approach to immigration reform needs to begin with the effects of globalization on Third-World countries. Contrary to popular belief, most people prefer to remain in their native lands. They only look to leave usually when the situation at home gets desperate. And given that many immigrants have died trying to find a better life north of the border, it's fair to assume that economic conditions in Mexico and Central America must be dire indeed.

But why is this? President Bill Clinton, with the acquiescence of Congress, implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 15 years ago. And NAFTA was sold to Americans and Mexicans as an economic cure-all that was going to lift Mexico into a new era of first-world prosperity while providing multiple benefits to Americans (and Canadians) as well. What happened? Was Ross Perot right after all?

Today, 15 years later, Mexicans (as well as Central Americans) are risking life and limb in record numbers for the right to work largely unsafe, low-paying jobs in the United States. Americans are seeing their jobs being outsourced to foreign nations at a breakneck pace, which has gutted the American middle class. But these jobs don't seem to be doing a whole lot for their new host countries, which remain as poor as ever. Is anybody winning here? Was NAFTA a big mistake?

I don't have the answer to that. But it's amazing how NAFTA along with other "free-trade" pacts have been all but completely shut out of the immigration discussion. You'd think that a trade deal that has produced the opposite effect of what it first promised would be ripe for re-examination. But to question free trade is to get labeled a protectionist kook, not worth taking seriously. (Border fences and tearing up families, of course, are such a much more sensible solutions.)

Actually, a couple of presidential candidates, notably John Edwards, have been raising the same questions about NAFTA. But our media features former North Carolina Senator Edwards (on non-haircut related issues) about as often as it covers Equatorial Guinea politics, so few voters are aware of this. Meanwhile, Lou Dobbs gets a nightly platform for his cheap xenophobia.

Some might say that NAFTA is great on paper, but that corruption south of the border has ruined it for Mexico. But that's just another dodge. There's no reason the treaty can't be re-opened and re-negotiated to include some strong anti-corruption safeguards. It just takes a little bit of political will. If we fix NAFTA, we might see the illegal-immigration problem fade to a much more manageable level.

But treaties are boring. Fences and guards and guns are just so much more exciting. Demagoguery trumps rationality every time.

And that's why we just keep running in circles on immigration.

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