Monday, January 18, 2016

Immigration... Understanding the Divide between Mexico and the United States

As someone who has served as a missionary in Mexico for over 25 years, there is one thing people from the US always want to ask me about, and no, it’s not water. It’s immigration, and usually it's phrased benignly, like this… “Dave, what are your thoughts on immigration.”

This question, perhaps as a result of the coming presidential elections, is not just being asked here in the US. I’m also getting the same question from my south of the border friends. But the  question there goes something like this… “¿David, que pienses de Trump?” Or “Dave, what do you think of Trump.”

For better or worse, Donald Trump has raised the immigration issue to a level not seen in years, both in the US, and in Mexico.

I believe that if you are going to be about Jesus in another country, you owe it to that country to get to know her. For me, that goes well beyond what many feel are the typical ‘missionary” issues, things like food and the local church cultures. For one to thrive in a foreign land, develop the relationships necessary for success, and convince locals you truly love them like God does, requires a strong dose of cultural intelligence, to use a phrase coined by noted author David Livermore.


I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years. I’ve been an employer in numerous jobs, responsible for hiring thousands of people both here in Nevada and in Southern California. I’ve had to deal with I-9’s both as a boss, and as an employee myself. I’ve worked alongside and yes, have hired illegal workers from around the world. And I’ve had both good and bad employees from both sides of that issue.

While my Spanish is not perfect, and I doubt it ever will be as I came to the language late in life, I can sit and have the conversation with the two major sides of this issue fairly competently in both languages. This includes both my hard right and my lefty lib friends in the US and business owners and poor indigenous farmers in Mexico, and everyone between. 

In short, over the years I’ve built enough of a rebel image, that people from all sides feel comfortable talking to me and expressing their views, no matter where they stand on immigration.

My first real conversation about this in Spanish was with a group of college students in Guadalajara almost 20 years ago. We were at a weekend retreat and a few of them decided to ask me about immigration. Truthfully, back then I had no real “side” in the debate, but I could argue. We talked long into the early morning hours. It was, and remains, one of my favorite nights ever in Mexico. I learned so much that night. About immigration yes, but also about how people think, feel and experience life in general in Mexico.


That was the beginning of understanding the issue of immigration as much more than just a series of laws, fences, walls, and regulations designed to keep people in, or out. It is an issue that divides friends, countries, families, and even churches. Simply put, few issues between our two countries are as emotionally charged as immigration. 

Like all difficult issues, workable solutions are not going to be easy and no side will, nor should, get everything they want. Simply imposing one sided solutions from the US, no matter how good that might make us feel, will not get to the root of, or solve the problem. 

Conversely, Mexico cannot escape the fact that they have a role to play in this ongoing drama. It is the responsibility of government to care for her citizens, within her own borders. While the US is guilty of sometimes being a rotten big brother, the Mexican government has at times acted like a petulant adolescent and struggles to take responsibility for their own actions related to immigration, even as they are currently deporting more illegal immigrants than does the US.1

Any solution is going to be difficult and costly. To be effective, it will involve political sacrifice, from the heights of the Mexican government, to the most seemingly insignificant US Congressman. On the line here are billions of dollars, years of political grandstanding, national pride, jobs, and of course, peoples lives.

We should also acknowledge that while many in the US are fixated on Mexico as it relates to immigration, a large percentage, 48%, of those who come to the US illegally are from countries other than Mexico.2 Additionally, new research shows rather than allegedly sneaking in, the largest group of people in the US illegally enter under the full authority of the US Government, on approved VISAS, and then, overstay their welcome. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.3 

Of the more than 11 million immigrants here illegally in 2014, over 5 million are from countries other than Mexico.  This means that even if we secure our southern border completely, no small feat, we will still have a significant amount of illegal immigration to our country.

Where do we start? First is education. 

Before you can have a solution, you have to understand the problem. I’ve laid out a few facts above as they relate to Mexico, but there is more. Here are a few questions I typically hear from folks in the US.

Why can’t Mexicans follow the rules like people who come here from other countries? 

This is a fair question, if there were in fact rules. The premise is also false, as the facts show. The difference between 48% and 52% is so small that in reality, people from other countries are no more likely to follow the rules than our neighbors to the south. To put it bluntly, you are just as likely to run into a person here illegally from Germany or China as you are Mexico.

But the problem runs deeper. Literally, for Mexicans there are few hard and fast rules, other than you cannot cross the border without permission. For someone trying to visit, or immigrate to the US from Mexico the process can be cumbersome, slow, and costly. If you desire to come for a visit, add arbitrary to the list. Our government routinely denies tourist VISAS without ever providing a reason why, after the applicant has seemingly met all the requirements listed on the appropriate web sites and has paid his or her fees. 


I call this “hunch or feeling based” judgement. And while we all know that at times, yes, hunches can be very accurate, they are not a way for a country to effectively conduct foreign policy. We certainly do not want countries determining how they relate to us based on hunches or feelings. We want, and expect there to be sensible, fair, dispassionate laws to govern those interactions.

To immigrate to the US, a person must have a passport and then make an appointment with a US Consulate office for a pre-visit, or immigration interview. The cost for that interview can be significant, depending on the number of people in your family. In addition to the “official” costs, there are costs for required medical exams, hotel stays, meals in transit, etc. Add it all up and the cost just for the appointment process can run into the thousands of dollars. 

All of that must be paid in advance, with no guarantee of your approval, sort of like a lottery. Imagine saving for years, paying all of your fees and then being told no.

Let me put that in perspective for you. For a family of four, that cost could easily reach $5000.00US when you include everything. That’s about half of the $10,000.00 family GDP in Mexico.4   Conversely, with the average US family GDP at $52,000.00, that family of four in the US would have to pay approximately $26,000.00 to have the same burden as a Mexican family.5 How many families here in the US can afford to play in such an expensive lottery, risking half their family income?

But rules are rules, and I get that. Just understand, that the rules are pretty stacked against the poorest of the poor, the ones who truly need a helping hand to feed their families, those that are sneaking across the border to put a few extra tortillas on the table, ala Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”

But Dave, people ask, aren’t illegal immigrants taking jobs from able bodied Americans?

Again, the answer to this question is multifaceted. I’ve stated that I have hired illegal workers in the past. That was primarily when I was in the construction industry in Southern California. Here’s a simple truth I encountered. Without this workforce, construction in So Cal and many other areas would grind to a halt.

Builders have to make a profit, or else they will not build. There is always a maximum amount a builder/developer can afford to spend on production and still make their margin. Contrary to what people may wish to believe, there really are caps on what people will spend on real estate, even in sunny Southern California.

No builder can pay a salary that makes the house he just built more expensive then the market will bear. The problem is this, hard as it is to hear, and even say… fewer and fewer Americans will work at the rate the builder requires to make his profit in the marketplace. A good example of this is the housing market in Southern Nevada. Currently the timeline from start to finish of new home construction is slower than normal and what would be most profitable for a developer. The reason for this? Lack of qualified workers in the construction trades, due partly to a net drop in immigration to the US from Mexico.6 

When asked the obvious question, about whether higher pay rates would make up that difference, Keith Lynum, President of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors put it bluntly recently on KNPR, explaining that the increase in wages would drive prices beyond what people would pay.7 Simply put, it is often more profitable to use labor that will work for a wage that some will consider sub-par. Not illegal, but sub-par.

For years I managed a crew of primarily painters, working for $15.00 an hour, plus the taxes we paid for them. They lived together, pooled resources and saved money for the day they could buy their own homes. Again, many Americans will not work, or live like that. In the Los Angeles area, where simply renting a room in a middle class neighborhood runs upwards of $750.00 a month plus utilities, a job paying roughly $2400.00 a month before taxes will not go very far.

Today, everyone of those guys who worked with me is married, has kids, is legal and just like when they started, contributes to the American economy.

Let’s look at another example, farming. We are told to listen to those in the know, and for agriculture, that means farmers. Overwhelmingly they report that without immigrant labor, much of it illegal, they would be unable to harvest their crops at a reasonable price. Many farmers speak of leaving fields fallow for want of people to process the harvest.8


Farmers too have a maximum they can pay their help and make a profit. And that maximum resides in our pocketbooks. Most of us already believe we pay far too much for the trip to the grocery store. What if you were told right now you’d have to pay an additional 30% on every piece of fruit or vegetable you bought? Again, the experience of farmers is that most Americans simply will not do the back breaking work necessary at the rate they believe they can pay, and the market will support, and still make a profit. 

The bottom line is this… America is addicted to cheap labor and that cheap labor primarily comes from the hands of immigrants, legal and illegal. Think our addiction is not true? In 2011 the Texas State Legislature was working to clamp down on the hiring of illegal immigrants. The author of a proposed bill made sure to grant John Q. Public an exemption from fines and potential jail time for personally hiring illegal workers to work in his private home.9 

In other words, this Texas legislator was ready to penalize corporations for hiring illegal immigrants and paying them subpar wages, but not someone living down the street, further feeding the addiction.

Be it farming, construction, gardening at your house, or even the twice a month cleaning lady, we simply talk a better game than we are willing to realistically face, especially if the issue hits us squarely in our pocketbooks. 

Why can’t they just work in their own country? Why do they have to come here?

To be sure, the short answer is a lack of good paying jobs in many parts of Mexico. But let’s look a little at how that came about. Years ago many men worked in the corn industry of Mexico. But US subsidies paid to our farmers soon radically changed that market, making it almost impossible for Mexican farmers to compete in the world market. Now with the planting of GMO corn imminent in the birthplace of corn, we can expect even more problems.10

I’ve written more on this specific issue both here and here, exploring the link between US practices as they relate to both the corn and sugar cane industry in Mexico and employment.

Suffice to say, yes, Mexico needs more jobs. But US actions have contributed to the unemployment for which many criticize Mexico. Here’s what Sidney Weintraub, a political economist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC., had to say about US practices in the agricultural world when they challenged the legality of what the US was doing… “The Mexicans never had a chance because their argument was based on fair play, and the US [argument was based] on law.”11

Make no mistake, Mexico has employment issues. Too few people are able, despite educational gains, to find real, family supporting jobs. Official estimates run as high as 25% for the “underemployed” rate. In areas where I work, primarily indigenous villages, I think leaders would love to see a 25% rate. Few of the men in these areas have any kind of regular work. As the economy has struggled to recover from the world economic crisis of 2008 we are now seeing the peso getting crushed by the dollar.12 Additionally, the employers, both private and public have been slow to embrace technology, perhaps knowing that will eliminate even more jobs, further exacerbating the situation.

Let me give you an example. 

I went to a papeleria, or a stationary store, recently in Mexico. I was greeted at the door by one worker and directed downstairs to find what I needed. I asked at the counter for poster board. The employee told me they had it and the price. I asked for five sheets and she wrote up a ticket. I then went back upstairs to pay and when I brought back the receipt, the employee directed another employee to get my five sheets.

Wrapping them up as I waited, they were then given to another employee to take them upstairs and confirm again that they had been paid for. I was finally given my poster board but before I could leave, the security guard had to check my receipt one more time. All told, 6 employees were involved in my transaction, valued at less that $5.00.

Technology and a better understanding of how to use workers would have undoubtedly cut down the number of people involved in my transaction. But that would mean fewer workers, and as we have seen across the globe, millions of idle unemployed young people, frustrated at the situation and the powers that be, can lead to social disaster. It’s the idle hands theory.

At some point, leaders in Mexico will have to address the situation in a real and practical way. Until that happens, we will continue to see the pressures of immigration, both legal and illegal from our southern neighbor. The question is in the interim, what should the US and Mexico do about it?

Many advocate for a simple, unilateral approach. Build a wall, send everyone home and call it good. It is after all, our country. America, love it, or leave it! 

This approach, while appealing to many on the surface simply denies the above realities and will only manage to anger our neighbor to the south, a major US trading partner and a source of serious economic activity in the US.13

That does not mean we should stand aside, do nothing, bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best, a charge leveled by many critics of comprehensive immigration reform. I believe we need a system that not only works to limit illegal immigration, but also deals compassionately, fairly and equitably with those who are already here.

I also think that any approach must be grounded in reality, be both operationally and politically workable, and ultimately, be seen as a net positive for all involved. It must also be honest about the 11 million who are already here.

There is absolutely no way we are going to be sending 11 million people back to their home countries, no matter how much people like Donald Trump, your neighbor or any other presidential candidate wishes it to be so. Strictly speaking, to do so would require an airlift not seen around the world since the days of the Berlin crisis, involving over 22,000 full Boeing 747’s to get everyone home.

So, what should we do? Or, as the original question asked, what are my thoughts on resolving this difficult issue? I do not have the solution, but I know this. Any solution that does not consider the above thoughts, is going to fail.

A final note...

The issues related to immigration are very personal to me, because I deeply love many people in both the US and Mexico who hold legitimate views on all sides of this difficult issue. As a missionary in Mexico, I believe it is my role to learn and understand as much as I can about the issues facing the Mexican people in their daily lives.

Part of that is understanding the politics, culture and history of the people I serve. Part of being effective when working within a short term framework, is putting those realities in context for the mission participants who serve alongside me.

I'd love to hear your thoughts...


1. Arce, Mark Stevenson and Alberto. "Mexico Now Deports More Central Americans than the US." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 18 June 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

2.  "5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S." Pew Research Center. N.p., 24 July 2015. Web. 04 Sept. 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/24/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s

3.  Krikorian, Mark. "On Immigration, Fighting the Last War." National Review Online. N.p., 1 Oct. 2015

4.  Pineda, Martha. "Home." GAIN Report, Mexico. http://gain.fas.usda.gov/, 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 04 Sept. 2015.

5.  Noss, Amanda. "Household Income." (n.d.): Household Income:2013. U.S. Department of Commerce, Sept. 2014. Web. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acsbr13-02.pdf

6.  Barrera, Ana Gonzalez. "More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S." Pew Research Centers Hispanic Trends Project. N.p., 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

7.  "Las Vegas Real Estate Prices Stable As New Homes Come On The Market." Nevada Public Radio. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

8.  Tomson, Bill. "Farmers: Trump Terrible for Agriculture." Politico.com, 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 

9.  Riddle, Debbie. "82(R) HB 1202 - Introduced Version - Bill Text." 82(R) HB 1202 - Introduced Version - Bill Text. Rep. Debbie Riddle, n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2015. http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/HB01202I.htm

10.  Bayless, Rick. "A Sad Day in Mexico." Rick Bayless. N.p., 22 Aug. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2015. http://www.rickbayless.com/a-sad-day-in-mexico.

11.  24, August. "WTO's Sugar Ruling Leaves Mexico Bitter." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 24 Aug. 2005. Web. 05 Sept. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2005/aug/24/world/fg-sweets24.

12.  Irwin, Neil. "How a Rising Dollar Is Creating Trouble for Emerging Economies." The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

13.  Villareal, M. Angeles. "U.S.-Mexico Economic Relations: Trends, Issues and Implications." U.S.-Mexico Economic Relations: Trends, Issues, and Implications (2015). www.fas.org. Congressional Research Service, 20 Apr. 2015. Web.

3 comments:

Denny Eitniear said...

My thoughts. The timing of my reading your blog could not be more poingiant. I just ended a phone call with a VERY conservative friend. We are both anti-Trump Republicans. The topic of immigration came up during our discussion. Not only we were both on the same page, but we we're very closely aligned with your conclusions here. Common sense and logic are not exclusive to any party or ideology. It's time we woke up to that fact that as a people we need to climb down off our mutual high horses and work together to move our society forward. Congress is a lost cause, it's up to us to take up the mantle. How to do that? I'm sadly lacking in that department, sorry, I'm not Solomon, it's far above my pay grade. I do know that the media is not helping by giving so much coverage to the lunatics in Burns, etc. with very little back groung info, or the Hillary bashing that is exagerated and not vetted. Don't get me wrong, I feel that she is a harpy and a gold digger with ego issues of the highest order,but that does not excuse the false narratives that are spread about her. Surprise, I recognize them for what they are, on both sides. Again, hopefuly, logic and commen sense have guided my comments. As always, thank you for your insights Dave, they are very enlightening.

Z-man said...

Being pro-life I come at this issue from a somewhat different angle. Average americans may not be having enough kids (I'm talking statistically of course as it's your choice how many kids you have). Mexicans have a high birth rate and offset this. The last couple jobs I've had now I work with mostly Spanish and they're hard workers. Just my .02)

Dave Miller said...

Hey Z-man... good to see you.

Here's what the stats are saying. Mexican families, once they settle here, are having less kids.

Now as for "Average Americans" you are right, birth rates are dropping. That's certainly going to be a problem moving forward with all us boomers moving into retirement.

The US needs more young workers to support the system that ultimately cares for seniors.