I am reliving the 1960’s. Born in Oakland California in 1940, the son of immigrant farm workers, I grew up with a working class immigrant’s identification with the disenfranchised. I spent the 1960’s in demonstrations against what America was then: a racist country, fighting a war that was destroying a nation of people on the other side of the world. Like Iraq, we had little chance of winning an ill defined victory in Vietnam. We lost 50 thousand in that war and our position as a favored nation throughout the Western World. The first war in which our fighting men and women were not welcome home as heroes. They not only had to endure the psychological wounds of war, the loss of limbs and the loss of loved ones; they also had to bear the country’s shame as well.
Like millions of other young people around the globe, I demonstrated for equality and a non aggressive U.S. foreign policy. : Sit ins against racist corporations, shop ins against non union grapes sold at Safeway - We filled grocery carts and clogged check out lines only to declare we had no money to pay. We were carted off to jail and this only increased our feelings of solidarity. Brave fellow demonstrators went to Chicago and Selma Alabama to protest. I confined my protesting to Berkeley and San Francisco where cops were trained to handle demonstrators with respect. In Chicago the cops were tough Irish street fighters who beat you with batons. In Selma they just murdered you. I felt safe in Berkeley, where a significant number of cops had masters degrees in social work and identified with our cause.
We paid the dues, others more than me, as change agents. We slept on the floor of the Farm worker’s Union hall in Delano. Bringing food caravans from sympathizers in the Bay Area to help striking workers. By the end of the Vietnam war we congratulated ourselves for having “made a difference”. Today’s headlines create a deep sadness for us old activists. We made sacrifices to bring a better life to an underclass that has not really progressed much. Instead the gap between the haves and have nots in America has widened-hurricane Katrina taught us that. And we are again steeped in a military quagmire with no clear victory in sight.
We made the Vietnam mistake because we are not good at understanding other cultures. We over estimated the resolve of the South Vietnamese and underestimated the Viet Cong. The same can be said for Iraq. Unfortunately our solution to the “Mexican Problem” reflects the same cultural ignorance along with a strong dose of Xenophobia.
The House of Representative’s bill making 11 million undocumented workers felons is the best example of our politicians being clueless. This type of legislation not only makes us look bad to all of Latin America, it does not address the root cause of workers finding any way possible to leave poverty behind and create a better life. They burrow tunnels, risk death by crossing in blistering desert heat and are often victims of assailants who prey on helpless “pollitos” (undocumented).
Mexico does not criminalize undocumented workers, including tens of thousands of the more than 500,000 retirees from the United States living in her country. These old folks live here undocumented because they cannot demonstrate immigration limits of $1,000 a month income for a single person or $1,500 for a married couple According to Mexican law they are not illegal, simply undocumented. If discovered, Mexican immigration helps them get documented. These social security recipients could not enjoy the lifestyle they enjoy in Mexico on $1,000 per month in the states. Therefore, as an expatriate in Mexico, I cannot (in good conscience) refer to undocumented workers in the U.S. as “illegals”. You never hear Mexico praised by yanks, who benefit from Mexican immigration officials treating Anglo undocumented in their country with respect.
This is an economic and administrative problem that cannot be corrected via criminal prosecution. We must address the problem with economic solutions instead of criminalizing almost 10% of the U.S. population. This “dirty band aid” approach will only lead to more serious social and political infections.
The political irony, that more than one half of the Western United States belonged to Mexico (before we took it from them forcibly), seems to escape most U.S. citizens and their elected representatives. Relations between Mexico and the U.S. made the Mexican border, until the early 1980’s, as easy to cross as it is for Canadians traveling into the states today. Mexicans are fully aware that Canadians cross the border easily and can only assume that some racism motivates the unequal treatment. Didn’t some of the September 11 terrorists enter the country from Canada? So far, no known terrorists have crossed via the Mexican border.
The minimum wage in Mexico is $5.00 a day and it is impossible to raise a family on that amount. At the border, foreign owned manufacturers, on average pay workers $10.00 a day. These dismal salaries keep more than half of the country’s workers in poverty. Despite these pitiful wages, Mexico has actually lost ground with foreign manufacturing to even cheaper Chinese labor. If U.S. corporations are committed to helping their nation stem the tide of undocumented workers they must begin to be more generous with Mexican employees. NAFTA has not improved the lot of the average Mexican worker but it has boosted the profits of U.S. companies. I find it curious that American media have not raised the question of U.S. companies’ obligation to be good NAFTA partners and pay workers a decent wage. Why is this issue not part of the immigration problem/solution dialogue?
My personal solution is to create an international Industrial zone that extends from the border one hundred miles South into Mexico. Over half the foreign owned manufacturing plants are already in this zone due to the convenience of close and inexpensive export to the states. This border - industrial zone will offer workers a decent salary. Lifting unskilled workers from $10.00 a day to $20.00 a day. This is still a lot cheaper than U.S. wage scales. These Northern Mexico Border States are also the least populated with the space to absorb millions of Mexicans who will want to locate there.
Infrastructure to support hundreds of new plants and a burgeoning population can be made by the U.S. in the form of loans to be paid back by Mexico from payroll and property taxes. The roads, sewers, bridges etc. required will generate tens of thousands of additional jobs. Our President, Congressmen, and border governors must use all their political muscle to convince major corporations to open new plants in this zone.
Mexico will be responsible for providing incentives to employers. Waive onerous labor laws that have caused many companies to locate elsewhere and provide medical benefits to workers at no charge to employers. Mexico’s vast socialized medical system should be able to provide the necessary medical care. Given the high cost of medical care in the United States this should be a huge incentive to companies. We could also solicit U.S. drug companies to fund teaching hospitals in which U.S. doctors can learn more about natural healing herbs and procedures not known in their country and Mexican doctors can learn state of the art medical technology from U.S. colleagues.
Medicare coverage by Mexican providers should be extended to the half million ex patriates living in Mexico. Medicare and U.S. companies will benefit from incentives for workers and retirees who use Mexican health providers who are 30 to 70% less expensive. This provider option would also appeal to Hispanic workers who feel more comfortable with physicians who know their language and especially their culture.
Mexico, in return for U.S. private and governmental development efforts, will agree to integrate Mexican and U.S. Immigration agents to help secure the border. Mexico has not accepted any enforcement responsibility for the flow of immigrants north. However, we could exchange cooperation in securing the Northern border by aiding enforcement at Mexico’s problematic Southern border with Central America. Providing them with equipment and training to reduce the flow of undocumented across Mexico’s border with Guatemala. This would be in our best interest, since Mexico is typically just the first border crossing before entering the U.S. from Central America.
Mexican immigration will be asked to cooperate by providing more opportunities for foreigners in the international commerce zone. Laws presently limit the number of foreign workers in a company. The ratio is one foreigner for every nine Mexicans. The law also states that if a Mexican can fill the job, foreigners should not be hired for same. By opening its doors to foreign managers and skilled U.S. workers, Mexico will benefit from the training and development their workers will receive. In this scenario everybody wins.
What I am proposing is that we cooperate in solving a common problem. Cooperation with the best interests of the average Mexican citizen will in fact be a new paradigm for – U.S relations and the only one that can truly treat the cause of the problem. In the past, our only criteria for aid to Mexico was that her government maintain control of her citizens in order to assure a stable border. No matter that her people were “kept in line” by intimidation and fear in a despotic autocracy. The border issue has presented a new opportunity to depart from our historical past. Now that there is true democracy in Mexico we must invest in its success for the common good.
Expatriates in Mexico should be concerned about this immigration issue because it could affect us all. The front runner for president, replacing Vicente Fox - whose six year term expires at the end of this year – is Manuel Lopez Obrador. A left wing populist who has already criticized Fox’s condescension to U.S. interests in Mexico. If things go down hard for Mexicans in the U.S., what retribution would we face? I for one want to stay in Mexico, my home.