Shooting a Gift Horse in the Eye
When it comes to empires, neighborhood often equals destiny. Geography is unkind to some: the Dutch, for instance, ruled a global empire in the 16th Century only to be swallowed up by Spain for a century during the 30 Years War. France suffered similar problems, separated by its historic enemy, Germany, by a few rivers that proved little help during three invasions between 1870 and 1941. Another land empire, Russia (and the Soviet Union), had similar problems containing with the restless Teutons.
Islands tended to weather storms. The British benefitted from their island status, allowing them to pursue a naval-based strategy for centuries in the knowledge that no significant effort to invade England had taken place since the Spanish Armada (1588), and none had succeeded since the Norman Conquest of (1066). Japan, another island empire, managed to remain unoccupied from ancient times until Douglas MacArthur set up shop in 1945.
Mountain ranges helped, too. Imperial Rome managed to dominate the Mediterranean early in its run as the Western world’s hegemon, and having vanquished Carthage, never really faced another threat from that direction. The Alps proved a highly effective natural wall against the ‘barbarian’ tribes of the north until decadence rotted the empire from the inside, allowing a Visigoth army to administer the coup d’gras. Spain, too, had a peninsula of its own and, like Rome, a mountain barrier separating it from the rest of the neighborhood (the Pyrenees).
But no empire in history has been so blessed by its neighbors as the United States. Start with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which even in the era of global terrorism and nuclear missile submarines represent a very high hurdle for any who would strike at (let alone, invade) America. Then, to the north, lay Canada. With the exception of an idiotic U.S. contingency plan developed in the 1920s to invade Canada, America’s northern ally has been an unqualified blessing – the source of vital raw materials like timber, iron ore, oil and very funny comedians (Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, etc…), and a positive force in world affairs (present, for instance, at D-Day, in Europe during the Cold War, and in Afghanistan). Meanwhile, Canada, by far, is America’s top trade partner.
Then, to the south, is Mexico. Relieved of her most valuable real estate during America’s most rabidly imperialist period in the middle of the 19th century, Mexico nonetheless endured its internal dysfunctions — revolution, poverty, corruption and now narco-terrorism – largely without affecting the United States. Mexico is our third most important trading partner – with only Canada and China ahead of it – and the third largest supplier of oil to the U.S. (Canada and the Saudis ahead of them in that category).
Too proud (and still somewhat wounded from 1848) to ask frankly for U.S. help, instead Mexico is an irreplacable source of vital low-cost labor, whether seasonal workers for American agriculture, factory workers in northern Mexico’s maquiladoras – the U.S. owned plants that NAFTA enabled (and which, otherwise, would be located in China or another far eastern country); and immigrants, legal or not, who kept American lawns cut, roofs shingled and dishes washed during the boom times.
What has America offered Mexico in return? Low pay for hard work that Americans will not do is one answer. Even in times of 9-plus percent unemployment, Americans will not harvest crops. U.S. farmers, hoping that hard times would allow them to cut back on the seasonal worker visas they generally use to fill their fields with Mexican pickers, have found that Americans, with few exceptions, simply can’t or won’t do such work at a wage enabling the farm to survive.
In spite of the ignorance of border state legislatures and GOP presidential hopefuls, statistics indicate that Mexican immigration into the U.S. has slowed to a trickle since the recession began. Indeed, many who were here illegally appear to have returned home. This pattern is tremendously advantageous for the U.S. economy. Like an army with a strong, ready reserve, our economy has a source of labor willing to move into low-wage occupations in the good times, and just as willing to head south for home in the bad times. God forbid they fall ill along they way and show up in a public hospital in Alabama, of course. But the “horror stories” of illegal immigrants parasitically feeding on the generosity of the American welfare state is as much of a fantasy as the Russian territory Sarah Palin could see from her front porch in Alaska.
‘But wait,’ they cry. ‘Mexican drug cartels are penetrating into the United States!’ This is true, but the causes are rooted in American society, not in Mexico. The first, as Mexican President Felipe Calderon pointed out recently at the U.N., is his northern neighbor’s world-beating demand for narcotics. The second, as he also mentioned, is the ability of cartel members or their agents to go to a U.S. gun show and, without the “waiting period” imposed on purchases of weaponry at a gun dealership, purchase military grade weaponry for use in their war against the Mexican state. A recent report claiming that 70 percent of weapons seized in Mexico are traced to the U.S. may be inflated. But let’s say the figure is only 45 percent? What Draconian laws would Arizona, Texas and Arizona be considering if 45 percent of the murders within their borders could be traced to gun sales in Mexico?
Americans may not like to hear this indictment of their society, but as Gulliver, we should be accustomed by now to the reality that our every move threatens to crush the Lilliputians all around us. Should they also make no noise as they’re crushed?
The final insult: racist slurs. The “lazy Mexican,” sleeping off a bottle of Tequila under his sombrero, was a stable of my Warner Bros.-cartoon filled youth. I’ve found the reality to be completely different. Generalizing about any nationality is fraught, of course. But over this past weekend, a U.S. contractor brought a crew of eight Mexican day laborers to my ex-wife’s home in New Jersey, stripped off three layers of shingles, replaced a few pieces of plywood and put on a new roof.
They worked 11 hour days in the hot sun of an Indian summer, stopped only briefly for lunch, turned down coffee and soft drinks and finished the job in a period of 24 hours. None of them made more than $200. Did they take a job from an American? I deeply doubt it. Neither lazy nor drunk, they worked tirelessly, took the low pay and then did what Americans ask most of them: disappeared from local streets by nightfall.
And we wonder why Mexico blames us for some of its problems.
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