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Immigration detour: A Mexican tale

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July 30, 2006

Immigration detour: A Mexican tale

Stephen Baker

Long before I'd heard the word Internet, much less blog, I worked as bureau chief in Mexico City for BusinessWeek. Before that I covered the border in El Paso. I've been tempted to blog about immigration, but have resisted, since it's not the theme of this blog. But since it's the weekend, I'll share a story I heard last week from a Mexican cook in Santa Cruz, Calif.

On Thursday I walked into a hole-in-the-wall cafe looking for huevos rancheros. It was just the cook and me, so while he worked on the eggs he told me about his hometown, El Ebano.

In 1901, an American oilman drilled a well in El Ebano, near the Gulf of Mexico in the state of San Luis Potosi. He hit black gold. It was the first find in Mexico, and it marked the birth of the industry there. For the next 37 years, El Ebano was a hotbed of opportunity. Foreigners poured into the town from the U.S., Europe, China. (You might remember that the desperados in the book and movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, were Depression-era migrants looking for work south of the border.)

In 1938, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the Mexican oil industry, expropriating foreign holdings. For the next five decades, from this cook's perspective, it was the golden age at Ebano. There was lots of work for Mexicans, and they had a powerful (if corrupt) union, which had a big stake in the government. This set-up, for all its virtues, was inefficient. And in 1991 the Mexican government opened certain sectors of the industry to foreign investment.

"Americans arrived with their computers," the cook told me. They automated processes and dismissed loads of workers. U.S. technologists, from his point of view, displaced Mexican workers. Out of work, he crossed the border into California and went where the money was, just down the road from Silicon Valley.

This story doesn't come with a policy prescription for immigration. But it illustrates the ebb and flow between two countries. The three fundamentals--capital, technology and labor--have long criss-crossed the border, often as if it didn't exist.

02:43 PM

Weekend Rant, society

Here's another story: some Mexican candies are tainted with lead. Here in America, we think lead-tainted candies are a bad thing.

That's why we have laws against things like selling lead-tainted candies.

Along the same lines, that's why (I'm sure the reader has already figured out where I'm going with this, but anyway...) we have other laws about dumping waste in rivers, importing invasive species that destroy local ecosystems, and so forth.

And, we also have other laws regarding illegal labor because some of us realize the corrosive impact that such illegal labor inevitably has.

Considering that about a year ago this magazine gave us "Embracing Illegals" (or was it "Embracing Corruption", or "Embracing Illegal Activity such as Identity Theft"?), it might be helpful to make the distinction between legal and illegal activities.

Posted by: IllegalImmigrationIntroduction at July 31, 2006 12:42 AM

The law is merely a tool, not an end in itself. And it's usually no match for stronger forces, such as market economics and demography.

We can have a war on illegal immigration just the way we have a war on drugs. But unless it addresses the root causes of immigration, which have to do with the most basic laws of supply and demand, I'm betting that people on this side of the border will continue to buy drugs and hire illegal immigrants.

Driving through Watsonville, Calif., last week, I saw workers in the 90-degree heat dressed in heavy parkas and hats, presumably to protect them from pesticides and herbicides. I'm guessing that many of these workers are illegal immigrants. Should that farmowner hunt for legal pickers? Think he can find them in time to harvest his crops?

If we clamp down on illegals, there are lots of jobs out there we'll have to do for ourselves. Might mean disaster for the leisure industry.

Posted by: steve baker at July 31, 2006 01:45 PM

I would suggest that clamping down on illegal immigration would force us to face some demons we would rather leave in the closet. For example, all the folks in the projects that get government assistance would need to become migrant farm labor. I doubt that would go over well.

Posted by: K T Cat at July 31, 2006 05:04 PM

This was an interesting story, except that migrant workers are different than the permanent resident illegals that we have in our country today. Migrant workers have always been part of our national fabric. They come and work and go back home. These criminals today do not want to go home... they have found free money that the government gives for free as long as they can jump the fence and then are welcomed into the secret society of illegal immigrant society.

Posted by: mrstan at October 4, 2006 01:04 AM

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