Art Cullen

Free Trade, Except Labor

We have NAFTA and, now, CAFTA and the WTO. We do lots of business with China and India and Pakistan. Goods and services know no national bounds, it seems. Let's have those Chilean grapes, Brazilian soybeans and Caribbean sugar by the boatload. But leave your neighbors at home.

All the free traders love the free flow of capital, goods and services. But they erect a fence to the free flow of labor because we think that, by birthright, the Estados Unidos are ours. It makes us think of those people who moved to Montana to enjoy the Rocky Mountains, and then resented every person who moved in after them.

Why exempt labor from the free-trade mantra?

We're already living on the cheap with slave labor from China and even lesser-developed nations. We think that by keeping immigrants out we can keep our wages up. Tell that to the John Deere worker or the Maytag worker about to lose his job.

We might as well pay the slave wage here in Iowa and keep some of that money at home. In fact, we already are but don't want to admit it.

Mexicans by the millions are washing over the Rio Grande to perform the work that nobody wants here. There is no way to stop it. We have tripled the size of the Border Patrol and increased its budget tenfold, but nothing can stanch the flow of desperate people.

Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain have put up a reasonable bill that would grant the millions of Mexicans -- of course, many of them in our midst -- legal status under a guest worker program. More Neanderthal bills would try to erect a wall at the Mexican -- but not Canadian -- border and step up border militarization even more.

President Bush said early in his tenure that he wanted some sort of guest worker program. But he hasn't lifted a finger to help. We may have lit upon the reason why: The administration doesn't really believe there is a problem with immigration.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, recently wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the immigration problem will go away in 20 years. Mexico's population growth rate has dropped by half in the past 50 years, and the United Nations predicts that it will fall into negative territory by 2050. The fertility rate in Mexico dropped from seven children per woman in 1955 to 2.5 today. Mexico's population growth rate is only slightly higher than Canada's.

An aging population and expanding Mexican economy will dry up the immigration wave, Dowd predicts. He writes: "Business that depend on a steady supply of low-paid illegal immigrants to keep costs down -- restaurants, farms, construction companies -- will most likely need to adapt by increasing salaries and benefits so they can attract legal immigrants or citizens as workers."

We like the idea that Mexico can grow its way out of poverty, corruption and oppression without us doing much. The numbers Dowd cites are compelling enough, but we suspect that the Mexican immigrant issue will be with us for many years.

That's fine with us. We never have grasped what the problem is with immigrants moving to dying rural towns. There's plenty of physical room on the Great Plains; the smallness can be in our minds. How do we reconcile our cloistered sense of place with our penchant for free trade?

Art Cullen is managing editor of The Progressive Populist and editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, where this editorial originally appeared.

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