Immigration reform, NAFTA's promise linked together - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Immigration reform, NAFTA's promise linked together

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Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2010 6:00 am | Updated: 7:06 am, Thu Aug 12, 2010.


The biggest problem with immigration reform proposals is how they fail to treat Mexico as separate and distinct in the search for blueprint solutions.

Pragmatists hardly ever take North American geography into account. Mexico, the only Latin American nation in North America, is the leading originating country of U.S. immigrants. Mexicans form a third of all foreign-born residents and two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants. Nearly all people emigrating from Mexico have a U.S. destination. About one-in-10 persons born in Mexico currently live in the U.S, according to the authoritative Pew Hispanic Center.

Mexico needs to be thought about as distinct for these reasons.

Yet, the zero-sum logic among public intellectuals basically looks at how one country's loss is another's gain. Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution does that in his recent book, "Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy.'' He reasons that for the sake of U.S. economic-development interests, our policy should cherry-pick top-flight foreigners for citizenship. It's like taking all the marbles, if you can, but it actually leads to North American underdevelopment.

For instance, Mexican migrants are better educated than the average Mexican who chooses to stay home. The 2008 report, "Mexico-U.S. Migration Management" by Agustín Escobar Latapi and Susan Martin, provides some important caveats. It shows that the Mexican loss to the U.S. increasingly comes from the ranks of the best educated, such as those with post-graduate degrees.

A graph would show a U-shape trend where the least and the most educated are likeliest candidates to migrate or to never return once they study here. As early as 2002, it was already known that 30 percent of Mexicans with Ph.D.s lived in the U.S. and 79 percent of science students on government scholarships never returned to their country.

The point to Darrell West's immigration-reform approach isn't that our country's economic-development self-interest hasn't been taken into account but that it has been.

Also, this is one of those times when the nativists and one-sentence screamers need to take a powder because the gains and losses are not rhetorical, and whether we are a nation of problem-solvers or issue-deflectors hangs in the balance.

In the 1992 debates leading up to the North American Free Trade Agreement, labor and migration issues were verboten, done as a concession to labor and the anti-NAFTA political assault by H. Ross Perot during the presidential election that year. There was no approach to harmonize the North American economies. Perot claimed U.S. jobs would flee to Mexico. Instead they ended up in China and other low-wage countries as well. Our national failure was, finally, to crack down and form the long-promised, highly educated, competitive population through public schools to compete for the top end, not the middle range, jobs of the world's economy.

Meanwhile, in the 15 years since NAFTA passed, trade with Mexico has increased 400 percent. The giant sucking sound Perot talked about was not from north to south but the reverse, with many people coming to participate in a U.S. economy paying six times theirs.

U.S. agriculture subsidies have contributed to the folding of Mexican farms, hence pushing surplus farm labor north. Cross-border trucking remains inoperative in an unfriendly free-trade practice.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks fundamentally altered U.S. attitudes in favor of a security state frame of mind, freezing any near-term likelihood of immigration reform for a decade.

The lack of progress toward better living standards, after there was such great promise, was one of those tipping-point factors that has probably -- along with corruption and lack of judicial reform in Mexico, arms to gang syndicates from the U.S. and consumer demand for a lot of dope -- contributed significantly to the terroristic organized crime spree that's brought havoc to portions of our neighbor country.

This is no small matter for the future of North American. But getting our house in order begins with immigration reform, complemented with fulfilling NAFTA's promise. The two go together.

Public opinion has been deflected by Perot-like isolationist slogans, which if you think about it, ought to give you the heebie-jeebies.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at For more stories visit

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