Return to Sender

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The U.S. Census lists Mexico as our second biggest trade partner for exports after Canada, with a share twice the size of what we sell to China. Mexico is our third-largest partner for imports, after China and Canada. It is our third-largest trade partner for exports and imports combined.

Trade and immigration are a horse and carriage that have to go together, according to Robert V. Kemper, a cultural anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has studied these patterns: "You can't say yes to the money and no to the people. It doesn't work that way."

The people who realize how much money it is don't want to say no to it. In a March 11, 2009, hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Walter Bastian said, "The amount of trade that goes back and forth across the southern border probably comes to about a half a million dollars a minute.

"Try to figure that out," he told the committee. "Per minute, every minute of the year . . . are talking about huge volumes of trade."

Not everybody loves NAFTA. Todd Tucker, research director at Global Trade Watch, a Washington advocacy group, says NAFTA itself is churning instability within Mexico by stripping away domestic-trade protection for Mexican agricultural products. The terms of NAFTA allowed cheaper American agricultural products to invade Mexico's domestic market, putting millions of Mexican farm workers out of work. Many flowed from southern to northern Mexico, Tucker says, only to find not-hiring signs on factories at the border, where the American economic crisis was having a strong effect. The churn of NAFTA, he claims, also provides a lot of the push propelling hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans north into the United States.

If Tucker is right, that's only one more reason for the United States to take a constructive approach to its Latino immigrant population. And that is not what Mexican leaders see us doing.

Last April, on the same day Governor Brewer signed Arizona's immigrant crackdown law, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa issued a statement saying in part, "Criminalization is not the way to resolve undocumented immigration."

President Felipe Calderón called the Arizona law an "obstacle to solving the shared problems of the border region." Calderón always has insisted the United States needs to figure out one of two things: 1) a way to stop hiring Mexicans or 2) a way to hire them legally, so that coming here and accepting an offer of work won't turn a Mexican into a criminal.

The even greater injustice of the current arrangement may be luring immigrants here to work but leaving them outside the community of the law. The same August 12 VVM story painted a horrific picture of helpless immigrants held in "pain houses" by kidnappers who dial up the relatives of their captives so families can listen by cell phone to the screams of their loved ones as they are tortured to extort ransom money.

No organized criminal activity of that sort aimed at innocent mainstream American citizens could survive. But the operation exposed by VVM, preying on people only half-seen by society, survives and thrives.

To cleanse itself of these cancers, America must go after the cause, says Leopold of the immigration lawyers association. The place to start is outside immigration law, in the area of labor and workplace regulation. Leopold believes we must root out the core incentives that bring people here illegally in the first place.

The best way to protect U.S. workers and immigrants alike, he says, is to make sure American employers cannot and do not hire immigrant labor at lower-than-market wages, under worse conditions.

"We have to have safeguards to make sure immigrants are not subject to abuse by bad actor employers because that is immoral, but also because we have to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers."

The Lamar Smith/Steve King contingent also likes the idea of strong enforcement. In fact, their battle cry has been enforcement first — enforcement at the border, enforcement in the workplace — but what they actually mean is enforcement to arrest and expel people, not to uphold laws protecting workers.

But it almost doesn't matter. Even with tough enforcement — labor law, trespassing law, whatever the country throws at them — poor immigrants will keep coming as long as there is work.

In 2005, the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program in Southern California studied "sending communities" — small towns in Northern Mexico whose populations often cross illegally into the United States.

Of those interviewed, 80 percent believed that border crossing had become much more difficult because of steps the United States had taken to close the border. Two-thirds knew someone who had died trying to cross.

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Jim Schutze
Contact: Jim Schutze