Helping Mexico help its own

Recent developments in Mexico would seem to provide a new basis for hoping that the complex immigration problems of the US are not as intractable as they sometimes appear to be. President Lopez Portillo has launched a vigorous campaign to use part of the country's vast new oil wealth to improve living conditions and develop new export crops for the country's 15 million rural poor.

This new emphasis on breaking the geographic and social isolation of Mexico's impoverished peasants comes on the heels of other recet government efforts to encourage economic and industrial development, and to reduce the country's high birthrate through an aggressive, nationwide family-planning program. These welcome initiatives are not likely to have an immediate impact on the population pressures felt in Mexico and the US or to halt the flow of job seekers into the US. Centuries of backwardness and neglect will hardly be reversed overnight.

But the Mexican government's clear determination to channel part of the $14 billion it will earn from oil and natural gas this year alone into programs for the poor does represent a significant start toward economic and social reform. Mexico and other Latin American countries must sooner or later come to grips with such reforms if they are to join the economic mainstream -- and if the US is to succeed in curbing illegal migration.

Of course, not all immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- are a drain on the US economy. A new federal study indicates that many make a big contribution to the economy. Immigrant families earn more on the average than native-born families within ten years of their arrival and pay more in taxes than they receive in social services.

This is not to minimize the economic and social strains which the growing influx of legal and illegal immigrants places on society, however. Many of the newcomers, for instance, are urban rather than rural migrants and, with higher skills, compete with native- born minorities and other Americans for jobs. The number of such urban migrants, including Mexicans, now represents 30 to 40 percent of the total and is growing.

Some researchers warn that in not doing more to discourage such workers from entering the US, Americans in effect are "picking the pockets" of their poorer, third-world neighbors. Concerned about the "brain, brawn, and gumption drain," as one writer called it, they ask whether it is in the best interests of the US or the developing countries for the US to pull these generally brighter and more ambitious people from nations in dire need of their skills.

In the case of illegal aliens, groups advocating stiffer controls on US immigration also make the valid point that, to the degree the elite in developing countries continue to look upon the US as a safety valve for their own social and economic problems, the needed reforms in land ownership, industrialization, and redistribution of wealth will be delayed. Such long-term solutions to poverty and joblessness must in the end be vigorously addressed not only in Mexico, but in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the many other nations from which illegal migrants flee to the US in search of a better life. Stricter enforcement of US immigration laws may help, but the primary focus of future US immigration policy should be on how best to help other countries to follow the lead of Mexico in seeking to develop new industries, in curbing population, in land reform. Mexico's initial efforts are to be applauded.

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