By William Urban


            It seems that the United States is being swept by another gigantic America First movement. There is a groundswell of feeling that Americans should come first, foreigners perhaps not at all. This goes across party lines, though the Democrats are more broadly oriented against imports (except those from Cuba, which would consist mainly of cigars). Republicans are more targeted in their dislikes, though the anti-French feeling has diminished since Sarkozyís election (Democrats have been more pro-French, with John Kerry speaking the language fluently and NewYork liberals preferring white wine to beer).

            NAFTA has moved to the center of this debate. One can understand anger in Galesburg that Maytag jobs have gone south. On the other hand, consumers seem to be very willing to pay less for the products they want. And that is part of the NAFTA deal ó American products are cheaper in Canada and Mexico, providing jobs for Americans who produce those goods; Mexican and Canada products are cheaper here.

            The other part of the NAFTA deal is that it provides jobs in Mexico (the automobiles in Canada have more automated production lines). The reasoning is that if Mexicans can find employment at home, they will be less tempted to come north. Certainly, it is very stressful to move into a new culture, to learn a new language, and to give up relatives, familiar entertainment and everything that speaks of home.

            This is the part of NAFTA that Republicans like ó it offers hope that, if the border is controlled at the same time, that illegal immigration can be channeled into a dependable and fair system of legal immigration. Democrats have provided grounds for suspicion that they are more interested in future voters than in bringing the era of open borders to an end.

            The borders have been open for a very long time, and they will remain open for as long as I can imagine. A fence can be built across the desert, but cities like McAllen, Texas (opposite the new Maytag plant in Reynosa), rely on cross-border customers. Mexico is friendly to industry, but not to commerce. There are too many taxes, regulations and payoffs, and too much crime and extortion. Everyone finds it easier to have Mexicans shop in Texas.

            The border control is well to the north of McAllen, where mesquite desert makes it difficult to walk around the agents and their drug-sniffing dogs. An artificial barrier of uprooted mesquites, easily provided there, would be both almost impenetrable (you should see the thorns on mesquites!) and it would turn the cleared bush country into pasture again. It is a harder question to say what ranchers should do. My friend Desi, a rancher west of Laredo, relied on the Rio Grande for his cattle. Iíve accompanied him on horseback down to the river. Itís been a long time, but the principles are the same ó workers come across to get employment, then go home at the end of the day. No taxes, no social security, everybody is happy. Except that the pay is lousy and the border patrol does show up now and then.

            Itís a different situation when schools are built on the American side of the river, and when women come over to have their babies (who are instantly American citizens). American taxes pay for those services. As for crime, illegal immigrants are usually deported. Since the statistics on crime are often based on how many illegal immigrants are in prison, this is not a number anyone should use.

            The arguments for a fence boil down to the scenes in San Diego a few years ago, when a mob simply ran past or though the border crossing and disappeared into town; and in San Diegoís struggle to bring crime under control. With the drug gangs controlling Mexican border towns and trying to take over their American partner communities, the best answer may be legalizing drugs. Americans arenít ready for that yet.

            The arguments against a fence are principally that it wonít work. As long as we make it practical for illegal immigrants to hold jobs, they will find ways to get here. Finding ways to determine which workers are illegal runs up against American reluctance to have a national identification system. Iíve never quite understood this. It seems quite as irrational as fears that the federal government will listen to your telephone calls. I donít know anyone who calls up his drug dealer, unless itís a local pharmacy for Viagra.

            Neither keeping NAFTA, nor repealing it, will resolve more problems than it will create as long as we fail to deal with the associated issues mentioned above.


Review Atlas (April 2, 2008), 4.