Monday, March 27, 2006

The Highway Scribe: Come Together

We might begin to consider the borders that separate us as wounds rather than good real estate for the fencing industry.

With antagonisms that run deeper than anything between Mexico, Canada and the United States, European nations have largely dissolved their own dividing lines through economic integration.

Getting into the European Union is a desirable thing and the old democracies use this leverage to impose a set of conditions whereby the community can be joined, and then make it tough to say no with promises of money, infrastructure and assistance.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed. Its goal was also economic integration, but some "sidebars" were added to ensure an even application of environmental regulations and protections for labor.

The integration has made lots of money for companies with the juice to set-up overseas operations. The environmental protections and labor rights guarantees have not done so well.

Swelling waves of desperate immigrants from the south, the topic of this forum at "Kiko's House," may be the result.

Martin Navarrette of the San Diego Union-Tribune noted in a column that immigration is a "binational" problem and that no legislation worked up on this side of the border can work, "unless Mexico takes steps internally to create the kind of society that would-be immigrants would not want to leave."

Navarette is not talking about a bigger fence in Mexico's face, but a better life inside its own space.

The columnist is laying some responsibility at Mexico's doorstep and to be sure, it plays the primarly role. The European template tells us that Mexico needs help doing that, but fixing another country from without is difficult.

In his regular job, the Highway Scribe is assigned to covering the U.S.-Mexico border and witness to efforts on solving the region's problems jointly.

A frequent visitor to the Baja California peninsula cities of Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada, the Scribe can't help but notice the "dollarized" economy that exists, the prosperity and development of a Mexican middle-class, thanks to border proximity.

In fact, it's not uncommon to meet a Mexican who made the trek to the border only to find a good job before crossing the dividing line became necessary.

The Scribe's simple idea would be to amplify this trend and "soften and widen" the border through economic prosperity. A modest and practical first step; eliminate the borderland with a happy "bufferland."

So the task is to empower the NAFTA sidebars for application at the border, where its effects have been most dramatic. Ensure that workers can unionize and improve wages and working conditions. Apply California-style environmental standards upon companies on the Mexican side.

NAFTA set up an infrastructure for such things. The tri-national Commission on Economic Cooperation (CEC), for example, does good work on issues confronting the three countries, approaching them from a continental understanding of shared watersheds, air corridors, and the idea that pollution doesn't respect the border.

In covering a CEC session in Monterey, Mexico, a few years ago, the Scribe could see the excitement of Mexican citizens during a public comment period in which they got to address a governmental panel with representatives from the three countries.

With all it's flaws we have an old democracy with a lot of ingrained and healthy civic habits. We should export them instead of doing what the administration did on that particular day, which was fail to send a representative.

That takes all the air out of the effort.

We can't change a country, but we can affect the quality of life along the border, reduce the opportunities for criminal behavior by decreasing – not increasing – the enforcement presence and allowing the border region to capitalize on the action NAFTA has brought, but cleaning up the money and the industry associated with it.

(The Highway Scribe blogs at HighwayScribery.)

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