Interior Mexico is a sad and lonely place. In the summer of 2001, on my most recent trip to rural Morelos, I worked on a service project in a small village called Jantetelco. Of the thousand or so residents, I could probably have counted on my fingers the number of young men living there. The village’s population consisted almost entirely of women, children, and old men, along with a few hopeless drunks.
On the last Friday in June, I had the chance to see first hand how such a dysfunctional town can continue to exist. While on a supply run to the nearby metropolis of Cuautla, I walked through the local market and saw the women from Jantatelco and probably scores of other surrounding villages appear at the Western Union branch on the main plaza. With babes in arms and children in tow, wives waited in line to pick up remittances from their husbands, probably working illegally in some U.S. city, living seven to a small one-bedroom apartment.
The few able-bodied men I met and spoke to in Jantatelco had all worked in the U.S. at some point (one showed me a California driver’s license, almost certainly obtained through fraud), and all of them planned to return. The fields of sugar cane that sprawl from the base of the volcanic Popocatepetl in the northeast to the rocky bluffs in the south of Morelos could not possibly keep enough of them employed even to sustain a modest third world lifestyle that most of us would positively disdain. The few people with a decent-looking house — and I use the term very loosely — had made their money in the States and wired it home.
This was all very long ago, and perhaps things have changed (although I doubt it). But I still feel it is relevant today because it represents a side of the current immigration debate that we rarely examine. Unlike the impoverished emigrant nations of past centuries — Ireland and Italy, specifically — it is obviously in America’s long-term interest that neighboring Mexico become a prosperous nation. But how can such a place improve substantially as long as such a large portion of its workforce is remitting cash from thousands of miles away?
We refer to the third world as “developing,” but nothing was “developing” in Morelos when I was there. Last year’s real GDP growth in Mexico was 3.0 percent — barely respectable for an industrialized nation, but pitiful for the third world.
The current proposed solution, a widespread grant of U.S. citizenship to millions of illegal workers, could make matters even worse as Mexicans bring their families north. Mexican economists this week issued a warning that I had long suspected would come, namely that Mexican small businesses will be decimated by a U.S. amnesty. When the remittances stop, a significant portion of the $20 billion (yes, with a “b”) lifeblood of Mexico’s domestic economy will dry up, perhaps wiping Jantatelco and most of Morelos off the map.
Illegal immigration provides a quick fix for some Mexican families’ financial problems — and really, one can hardly blame them for taking it — but it will never create a viable economy in Jantetelco or make it a desirable place to live and raise a family. Besides, separation from one’s family for the sake of survival is really no way to live. There is no substitute for long-term economic development.
At the root of the problem is how such a beautiful place as Morelos — with a climate approximating that of Southern California and the agricultural richness of Indiana — could be mired in such poverty.
The answer, of course, is government. Prior to my 2001 visit, a group of investors had sought to build a golf course south of Cuautla, which could have brought in hundreds of long-term, well-paying jobs in construction, tourism, and maintenance. But the entrepreneurs refused to honor bribe demands by local public officials, and that was the end of that.
I have never been able to verify the whole story, but I definitely believe it. On an earlier visit there, the group I was with had been forced to pay a bribe (or more properly, an extortion payment) to a highway patrolman who made no pretense about what he wanted or what he would do to our bus driver if he didn’t pay.
Corruption in Mexico is pandemic, and it is killing the nation’s growth, leaving Mexico a post-colonial backwater nearly two centuries after its decolonization.
The heavy dependence of Mexico’s economy on remittances from the U.S. is more than just a symptom of economic problems. It is a political problem in its own right, a major reason for the failure over the years to enact desperately needed economic and anti-corruption reforms. Mexicans are simply accustomed to business-killing corruption, and they circumvent it by leaving the country to find employment. By failing to enforce our immigration laws from the start, we have provided the safety valve for the political pressure that should have destroyed their reigning culture of corruption.
There is no simple solution, but there are a few things we can do.
- Our State Department can and should demand the anti-corruption reforms that Vicente Fox promised but could never deliver. Any changes to our immigration system should be conditioned on such reform.
- Also as a condition for immigration reform, the U.S. must demand the right of American citizens and corporations to own property in Mexico, unmolested. Foreign investment could work wonders for that nation. It would also help the corruption problem if wealthy Gringos make an international incident out of every shakedown attempt by a corrupt official.
- Once these reforms are achieved, enact a guest-worker program that does not include a path to citizenship, but grants temporary legal status to many more Mexicans than we currently do. Even with all of the illegal immigration, we are currently at full employment in the U.S. — at 4.7 percent our lowest unemployment in decades — and so some kind of worker program is necessary just to prevent wage-inflation here. But it must not precipitate the depopulation of Mexico by making everyone who can get here an American.
- Regardless of our immigration reform efforts, we must build a fence along the southern border and step up immigration patrols. This is not an economic issue, but a national security issue that cannot be held hostage in order to obtain a guest-worker program. Some politicians ridicule this idea as ineffective, but it cannot possibly be less effective than sending border patrol agents to chase after phantoms that trip motion sensors, as we do now. It will be expensive, but it will make us a lot safer than the far more expensive war we are waging in Iraq.
In the long run, we must have Mexico’s well being in mind as we pursue a policy for immigration reform. It must become a place where Mexicans want to live and others want to invest. We have already made many of the strides necessary for open trade with our southern neighbor, but we will never solve its problems by importing its population and wiping out its domestic economy.
David Freddoso, a native of Indiana, is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report.