Immigration issues always are ripe for demagoguery and bumper sticker politics, particularly in a post-9/11 presidential election year. Yet rarely do the sound bites match the complex reality along the US-Mexican border.
That reality is being driven hard and fast by surging population demographics. A new report from the US Census Bureau predicts that the number of Latinos and Asians will triple in the United States, and by 2050 whites will comprise only about 50% of the nation's population. Latinos are by far the fastest-growing population, and in a few decades will comprise a quarter of the nation's population. By 2050 most of the US will look like California today. And California will look more like -- Mexico.
For some people, these numbers are alarming. We can expect to see a new crop of political demagogues calling for closing and militarizing the border. But it is a law of physics that two gases in disequilibrium will intermix, and the economic disequilibrium guarantees that poor Mexicans will continue seeking entry into the United States, legally or illegally.
But if we can't shut out the Mexicans seeking a better life, and we can't just throw open the border, then what else can we do?
There is a third way that holds great promise: gradual integration of the two political economies. That process already has begun, but it has been resisted and proceeded halfheartedly, resulting in the wrong regulatory scheme -- the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
For an idea of how this integration can proceed better, look towards the European Union. In May 2004, the 15 nations of the EU integrated 10 new nations into their economic and political union, becoming the largest advanced political economy in the world, a powerful free-trading bloc of 400 million people. Yet the 10 new nations are poorer than the other 15 -- just like Mexico is poorer than the US.
European Union leaders wisely created policies for fostering regional integration that make American efforts like NAFTA look timid by comparison. They realized they had to prevent a "giant sucking sound" of businesses and jobs relocating from the wealthier nations to the poorer nations. They also had to foster economic growth and the spread of a middle class in these emerging economies. With open borders, they also had to prevent a mass exodus of poor workers emigrating to the developed nations.
So they gave the new member states massive subsidies -- billions of dollars -- to help with the construction of infrastructure like schools, roads, telecommunications and housing, making these nations more attractive for business investment. The idea is to raise up the 10 emerging economies, rather than drag down the more advanced economies. It will be expensive, but the result will be a larger economic union where a rising tide floats all boats.
In return, the poorer nations must agree to raise their standards on the environment, labor laws, health, and safety, so that predatory corporations looking to exploit cheap labor and deregulation won't find that by relocating. There won't be any border maquiladoras in the European Union.
The flow of worker migration still will be regulated for several more years. Immigrants will be carefully integrated so as to cause the least amount of disruption, with the goal of having open borders within a decade.
But Europe's union is not just an economic one -- it also includes accompanying continent-wide political institutions, including a European Parliament where all 25 nations are represented, and an executive commission where all nations have a seat.
The European Union portends the direction that border policy between the United States and Mexico needs to go. At some point it will make sense to move the North American regional integration out of the realm of a shadow economy and flawed free trade agreement. But what might such an American-Mexican Union look like?
It would start with massive subsidies from the US to Mexico. Instead of giving $100 billion to Iraq, where the return on investment has been dubious, we would give a chunk to Mexico. The goal would be to raise up Mexico, decrease the disparities on the Mexican side of the border, fostering a climate more ripe for business investment. This would create more jobs in Mexico, resulting in fewer Mexicans desiring to emigrate north.
This in turn would foster a growing Mexican middle class, complete with homeownership, schools, roads, health care and infrastructure. A larger Mexican middle class would create more consumers buying American products. The rising tide would float all boats. But here's an even more intriguing possibility.
We always assume that if we open the border, hordes of Mexicans will stream into the United States. But under this scenario, as we gradually open the border, we would see something new and different -- Americans would begin emigrating to Mexico. Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston are all closer to Mexico City than to New York City or Washington D.C. The cost of housing is cheaper in Mexico, and so is the cost of living. All things being closer to equal, many American workers will relocate to Mexico in search of jobs and homeownership, even to start businesses. They would chase the American Dream -- in Mexico.
By 2050 not only will the rest of the United States look like California today, and California look more like Mexico, but we will see Mexico looking more like the United States. Already we see the beginnings of this, with American expatriate communities springing up around places like Guadalajara. At first it has been mostly retirees, but increasingly working Americans will begin relocating to Mexico, looking for a fresh start.
This kind of regional integration is the future for the US and Mexico. It is happening already. And as that process unfolds, the question of regional political structures will make more sense, perhaps including a American-Mexican parliamentary body. Canada, not wishing to be left out, will ask for inclusion.
Of course George Bush and John Kerry will not talk about these issues anytime soon, since their pollsters and consultants tell them to avoid anything visionary for fear it will be controversial. Expect American politicians to stick to bumper sticker slogans, avoiding the reality of border issues until they are overtaken by the surging tide. But that day is looming closer with each passing election.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) in San Francisco and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (www.FixingElections.com).