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Hands across the border

U.S.-Mexico relations are about more than immigration. Both countries can take steps to help the other.

June 16, 2007

WHEN THE United States and Mexico enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, economists and immigration experts predicted a temporary increase in illegal immigration. That increase has yet to wane, and Lou Dobbsian passions on the subject have distorted the reality of what is, on the whole, a mutually beneficial relationship.

Mexico is our second-largest trading partner, after Canada, and among the top 10 export markets for 43 states. Yet despite the boom in trade -- two-way trade increased more than 125% in 10 years -- more than half of workers in Mexico earn less than $720 annually. With our economies so tightly bound, it is imperative that we stop vilifying our neighbor and begin to work together to reduce migration, secure our border and bolster our economies.

A section of the immigration reform bill about to be debated (again) in the Senate calls for a renewal of bilateral talks with Mexico, but it shouldn't take an act of Congress. We already have the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America agreement in place, but it has languished and should be significantly strengthened.

The partnership calls for the U.S. to help Mexico in a variety of ways, such as establishing a lending system for small- to medium-size farmers, providing micro-credit loans and increasing educational opportunities -- particularly in rural areas. Lowering the cost of remittance transactions to Mexico is key. Mexicans working in the U.S. send roughly $17 billion home annually, and that money can be used in creative ways for domestic investment. One of Mexico's most successful investment programs is Tres Por Uno, or Three for One, in which local, state and federal governments each contribute $1 for every dollar that migrants contribute to public works projects.

Each side can take steps to help the other. The U.S. can approve more visas for agricultural workers and speed up the process by which minor children and spouses are reunited with legal residents. The wait is now about five years, so discouraged relatives simply come anyway. Mexico, meanwhile, can demonstrate genuine commitment to controlling its border. Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, likes to say, rightly, that immigration reform must start in Mexico.

Mexico can start by enforcing its own laws; its constitution guarantees citizens the right of travel, but it also states that border crossings are to be at designated ports of entry. It can pull its weight regarding healthcare, increasing the number of facilities on its side of the border. Then there is tax reform. Taxes account for a paltry 18.5% of Mexico's gross domestic product. As long as Mexicans refuse to pay taxes and their government fails to collect them, U.S. citizens will have legitimate reasons to chafe at spending their tax dollars on mutual enterprises.

All of these reforms, and more, can be acted on without a reform bill.

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