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Thinking harder about immigration

Last Saturday there was a large and spirited rally in Medford, part of a national outpouring of revulsion over the Trump/Sessions treatment of families seeking asylum at our southern border. During the program, a statement by Sen. Jeff Merkley was read. In it, Merkley said that Trump has wrongly framed the issue as controlled versus open borders, with Democrats favoring the latter

Merkley is correct, but Trump’s framing has succeeded as a public relations ploy, and although jailing children apart from their families may have cost him some support, he has outmaneuvered Democrats on immigration.

Everything said at Vogel Plaza Saturday expressed the decency and compassion that should imbue our policy deliberations, but no one addressed policy itself. By implication, though, much of what was said validated Trump’s charge that Democrats are for open borders. Given the declining U.S. birth rate (our 2016 fertility rate of 62 births per 1,000 women age 15-44 was the lowest since record-keeping began in 1940), we could profit by open borders for a time. But the alarmed response in certain quarters to the recent Brookings Institution report that white deaths now exceed white births in more than half the states suggests that proposing open borders would be politically suicidal.

It’s not intellectually hard to specify good policies for our undocumented residents. I advocate citizenship for the Dreamers and amnesty for others who’ve been in the U.S. for at least three years without committing serious crimes — that latter policy is very like the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 (the “Reagan Amnesty”). But a policy toward future undocumented immigrants who don’t openly present themselves at the borders for sanctuary is harder to formulate. I won’t attempt to address that challenge directly, but indirectly by focusing on why so many Latinos are choosing to leave their homes and risk the dangerous journey north.

U.S. actions explain much of it, specifically, NAFTA’s economic impact on poor Mexicans, our support for political repression in Central America, and the widespread havoc our drug policy wreaks. Space allows me to say only a few words about these policies, which all enjoy bi-partisan support.

First NAFTA. Pushed through Congress by Bill Clinton, it greatly increased cross-border trade and U.S. investment in Mexico, but like all such trade pacts, its benefits weren’t widely shared. Between 1993 and 2013, Mexico’s economy grew at an average annual rate of just 1.3 percent and its per capita income by 1.2 percent while countries like Brazil and Chile underwent major expansions. Poverty remains at 1994 levels. Small maize farmers were hit hard by the flood of subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico; one study estimates that NAFTA ruined about 2 million farmers.

U.S. support of Central American governments that repress popular movements for economic justice is a long and shameful story. The most recent chapter was the Obama/H. Clinton support of the 2009 coup in Honduras. Honduras’ murder rate quickly skyrocketed to the highest in the world: in 2012, it registered 90.4 murders per 100,000 population, more than twice the rates in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala.

Finally, our insatiable demand for mood-altering drugs, coupled with our refusal to admit our inability to halt their trafficking, has so empowered the drug cartels that they freely terrorize the populations of Mexico and several Central American nations.

Trump’s “zero tolerance” solution at our southern border has appalled us, but he didn’t create the problem. And if you can’t bring yourself to support decriminalization of so-called hard drugs, you’re perpetuating it.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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