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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinOctober 19, 2007 Issue 

Immigration reform

Looking to end illegal immigration? Author has suggestions for lawmakers

By Sam Lucero
News and Information Manager

When the topic of immigration reform is raised, reaction can become emotional. If one believes what certain radio talk show hosts say about the subject, a strongarm approach to illegal immigration is the only reform that's needed.

This would include tactics such as building a fence between Mexico and the United States (at a cost of some $7 billion), raiding U.S. businesses accused of hiring undocumented people, and sending the estimated 12 million undocumented workers back home.

The problem with talk show hosts and the organizations that support them is that their simplistic and often inhumane remedies do not cut to the real issues causing illegal immigration. Even reforms offered by elected leaders such as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) propose reactionary measures, rather than legislation aimed at the root causes of illegal immigration.

In what should be a must-read article for anyone concerned about immigration reform, Tim Padgett, the Miami and Latin America bureau chief for Time magazine, offers a comprehensive look at the issue in the Oct. 15 issue of America magazine. (The article is not available on the magazine's Web site.)

Titled "Rethinking immigration reform: It starts in Mexico," Padgett argues that the basic premise of the immigration debate is flawed: "immigration reform is not domestic policy; it's foreign policy."

"Instead of trying to curb illegal immigration at the border, we should try reducing it at its source inside Mexico and Latin America, the region with the world's widest income disparities," writes Padgett.

In the past, Mexican leaders had little interest in changing their economic structure. However, during Mexico's recent presidential campaign, candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called for economic reforms, said Padgett, including an increase in the amount of capital and credit for small farmers and small business owners.

"For once, we're going to confront the great sin of the Mexican economic system - that it doesn't create jobs," Lopez told Padgett.

Padgett outlines three areas of improvement that would effectively and humanely curb illegal immigration into the United States:

  • increase capital and credit in Mexico,
  • create jobs and improve schools,
  • revise trade agreements.

Creating microcredit opportunities for small business owners, where they can take out low-interest loans to fund entrepreneurial efforts, would help an underserved population. "Mexico's banks all but shut out small enterprises with exorbitant interest rates and maddening red tape," says Padgett. "Only three banks, in fact, handle 70 percent of Mexico's financial activity, and little if any of it is conducted in the rural areas that produce the lion's share of illegal immigrants."

In an interesting twist, immigrants from Mexico, who send home up to $25 billion in remittances each year, are funding microcredit banks in their hometowns.

During a visit to Santa Cruz Mixtepec, in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, Padgett learned about one such microcredit bank.

"Two-thirds of Santa Cruz's 3,000 residents live undocumented al otro lado, 'on the other side' in the United States," writes Padgett, "and each year they send back almost $1 million. A few years ago the wives in Santa Cruz took a chunk of that money and founded a microcredit bank. ... With starter loans of $5,000 and up, (the bank) has helped build businesses as diverse as furniture-making and tomato greenhouses."

The result, adds Padgett: "Santa Cruz's workers are starting to return to este lado, or 'this side,' and some who considered leaving have decided to stay."

Finally, says Padgett, we need to reform our trade agreements, specifically NAFTA.

"Since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, Mexican exports to the United States have leapt from $40 billion to about $200 billion," writes Padgett. "But at the same time, the share of national income for Mexico's richest 10 percent has grown significantly, while that of the poorest 10 percent has declined."

Those who have suffered the most are poor farmers, who now must compete with giant agribusinesses such as Cargill and Archer Daniels. "Fewer than 3 percent of Mexican farmers today can compete with cheaper, and heavily subsidized, agricultural imports from the United States,"says Padgett. Reducing agricultural tariffs and subsidies to U.S. farmers are two ways to help correct the disadvantage.

What can Americans do to help change the structural inequities that force immigrants to travel north?

"A $7 billion border fence might make America's xenophobes feel better in the short run," says Padgett. "In the long run, however, they would be doing themselves a bigger favor by lobbying their congressmen to channel that money as foreign aid to microbanks ... and pressure the Mexican government to pony up, too."

The most urgent reform would be to call on Congress and the president to put pressure on Mexico to dismantle the "monopolies and oligopolies, which control every industry from television to cement to sliced bread."

"They are the main reason that credit and capital get choked off from Mexican society, but Mexico can get away with it by simply exporting its desperate workers to the United States," writes Padgett.

When injustice occurs, it's usually the poor who are hurt and the powerful afflicting the pain. The real injustice with immigration reform isn't about people crossing the border without proper documents. It's about the conditions that make them cross - draconian economic structures and policies.

These are important points to remember when casting aspersions at immigrant people - and when casting votes for elected leaders.

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