Viewpoint: Supply and demand at heart of illegal immigration

Rhetoric is boiling around the issue of immigration in the wake of nationwide demonstrations and protests against tougher border control laws. There are many simplistic and racist views of the issue, but solutions are not as easy as the ill-informed might believe.

David Sirota, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, says too many are forgetting the core question: “Why?” Why do so many Mexicans want to come here?

The answer, he said, is a matter of supply and demand.

Many Mexican nationals are willing to risk their lives to get a better life for themselves and their families. They are desperate because the supply of decent-paying jobs in Mexico is far less than the demand. That brings up the next query: “Why is the number of good jobs in Mexico so low?”

The answer to that puts the blame largely on the U.S. government and something called the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. No U.S. politicians are eager to discuss this aspect of the immigration dilemma because both parties have backed policies that have generated and aggravated the situation.

In recent years, both Republicans and Democrats have signed trade agreements that have shattered Mexico’s economy and created a supply-and-demand imbalance there. NAFTA was the worst. We were told it would create more jobs in this country and be an economic development tool for Mexico.

Unfortunately, the agreement did nothing to protect or boost the wages of Mexican workers, nor to improve workplace standards or human rights. All it did was create a pool of cheap labor for U.S. corporations to exploit.

Ten years after NAFTA was passed, we in this country are still shedding the good-paying jobs that the trade agreement was supposed to create. Sirota said a report by The Washington Post about NAFTA’s 10-year anniversary showed 19 million more Mexicans now live in poverty than before the agreement was signed.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said: “Mexico’s real wages are lower than they were before [NAFTA].” There is nothing in the pact to better wages and working conditions in Mexico so, the AP reports: “Many young [Mexicans] have manual jobs on minimum wage of $5 a day.”

Time magazine recently examined the situation and said: “Even when new jobs do appear, [Mexico’s] unforgiving low-wage business culture—the dark shame of Mexico’s political and economic leaders, which NAFTA was supposed to reform—makes sure that they still often pay in a day what similar work would pay in an hour in the United States.”

Mexicans’ demand for a better life has not and will not disappear, so they come north to the land of opportunity. Sirota said that is the reality of supply-and-demand that no amount of emotional rhetoric can change. Fences, border patrols and all the obvious suggestions for stemming the tide of illegal immigrants are prone to fail. Sirota said instead of trying to cut off the supply of job seekers, we need to lower the demand for U.S. jobs. No kind of physical barriers can be as effective as that move.

It means we have to reform our trade policy to provide much better wage, workplace and human rights conditions so that U.S.-Mexico trade actually improves the lives of Mexican workers to the point they no longer feel the economic need to violate our immigration laws.

Sirota said if NAFTA had raised 19 million Mexicans out of poverty as promised, instead of driving them into poverty, the tsunami of immigrants across our southern border would be a mere trickle.

The president and other politicians are talking about guest worker plans or amnesty programs, but those things are stopgap measures and will not solve the problem long term unless they come with a true reform of our trade policies.

Until our leaders address the disproportion between supply and demand where good jobs are concerned, illegal immigration and the prospect of an open border war will remain.

From the April 19-25, 2006, issue

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