El Norte
Amnesty as a non-solution.


[Warning, warning: This article presupposes that the guest-worker program will evolve or devolve into de facto amnesty for formerly illegal guest workers.]

Señor Bush’s amnesty fiesta has conservatives quoting Lesley Gore yet again: “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”

Conservative CW is quick to point out the stultification of innovation in the U.S. economy, which is turning spry ol’ Uncle Sam into Mrs. Butterworth. (Here, here to CCW.) Meanwhile, Kate O’Beirne rightly sees nary a back scratched by Vicente Fox for this favor to Mexico. Conservatives have only just begun to ponder the unintended consequences of yet another amnesty: the deep-sixed rule of law, dissolution of political will to actually solve the illegal-immigration problem, economic torpidity, the “squishification” of the natural-born workforce, and increased Mexican hope for another sequel. Yet there is another angle worth examining: What does this do to Mexico?

Take for instance the state of Morelos, reputedly the nation’s poorest region. Now take a stroll down a typical village lane. You’ll see unfinished huts made of mud, sticks, and a few precious cinderblocks–row after row of them–some with three walls, some four, some two. Public works include a reeking ditch that runs beside the road, occasionally spilling over into the path of scrawny mongrels and barefoot, shirtless children. Then you’ll see it, towering above its neighbors, a relative citadel: a simple but handsome three-story brick-worked house, complete with verandas and front-entrance colonnade, decorative archways, and tile roofing. A thriving vegetable garden in the back is matched by a beautiful flower garden in the front. All of this wonderment is forebodingly enclosed by high brick walls with shattered glass cemented on top. You could ask a passerby, “Señora, is that the mayor’s home?” And with a pleasant smile, sad eyes, and a far-off tone of resignation heard rarely in our country, she would reply, head shaking, “No, no, no, El Norte.”

“El Norte,” meaning simply “The North,” explains it all. El Norte is slang in Mexico for the U.S. The residents of the house have a husband, father, brother, mother, or sister who has come to the U.S. to earn and send back money for the family left behind. Some of these providers emigrate legally; many of them do not. For the legals, there is the hope of reunification after becoming naturalized–the family of a U.S. citizen is free to relocate safely and legally to El Norte. For the illegals there is some hope of return, some hope of illegal documents to begin naturalization, or some hope of an illegal border crossing for the rest of the family. All are risky.

Over the long haul, this practice is harmful to family, society, and government in Mexico. The Bush plan acknowledges this, yet by granting legitimacy and the path to citizenship to illegals, the proposed plan merely increases the perceived benefits of an illegal border crossing. Thus the Bush plan does not provide a long-term solution to the humanitarian crisis of illegal immigration, but rather whets the appetite of would be fence jumpers, thereby increasing the number of illegal immigrants in El Norte with family back in Mexico.

Furthermore, if an illegal eventually returns to Mexico, and if he makes it home safely, he must live on savings or return to the dismal economic prospects from which he fled. If he remains in the U.S. and seeks out false papers, he will either be caught and deported or, if he succeeds, he will begin his family’s new civic life based on illegality, a thing guaranteed to limit opportunities and warp patriotism and proper respect for the laws of El Norte. In summoning his family to El Norte, our illegal in question also places them in physical danger; if caught, they may lose the ability to immigrate legally. This leaves only the options of return or forgery, or perhaps desertion of the family altogether. By granting amnesty yet again, the U.S. would be inciting more Mexicans to take these risky and unlawful steps. Because aside from the economic promise, the hope for amnesty now encourages them to live illegally en El Norte. Amnesty temporarily unites families, but in the end it encourages more illegals to leave families behind for upwards of ten years.

So far unmentioned is what this habit does to the average Mexican village in, say, Morelos. The El Norte phenomenon renders every village a microcosmic medieval fiefdom. The high-walled keep will occasionally lower its drawbridge and, with treasures from the north, will enlist the peasants to make improvements upon the moat. There is no doubt that an influx of cash from loved ones in El Norte helps economically. To build those fine homes money must be paid into the local economy for cement, bricks, and labor. Yet over the long haul, the choice for El Norte seems a self-defeating cycle for a village. Imagine what our small towns and cities would be like if the gutsiest, hardest-working, most risk-taking, most entrepreneurially minded neighbors always went to Canada but left their families behind in the states. Sure those Mexican villages see the money from their former neighbors, but they don’t benefit from their ingenuity, leadership, and example (except that of bailing out of the village). The $14 billion the illegals from El Norte send home keeps Mexicans working, but it also keeps them working in the same lousy economy without lasting improvement to the socioeconomic fabric. Amnesty only perpetuates this gerbil-wheel economy.

All of these choices–and the U.S. policies that permit and encourage them–are harmful to families. So is starvation, some argue. Granted; but why do we then refuse to insult Presidente Fox with more food aid to Mexico? Most Mexicans, in fact, are not starving; it is opportunity and freedom from squalor that they are hungry for. Amnesty after amnesty is the cheap fix for that desire. It encourages illegal immigration, and in turn, illegal immigration spurs otherwise good-hearted people to criminality, divides Mexican families, and saps the village work force of its best and brightest. What’s more, it is not compassionate conservatism to propose policy with little regard to the impact on the day-to-day life of a neighboring country.

There are praiseworthy aspects of this new White House proposal. But, when looking from Mexico to El Norte, amnesty seems at best dispassionate centrism and, at worst, a cruel deception.

Matthew Mehan is a writer living in Maryland.