One of the things one reliably hears in the course of the debate about illegal immigration is: “Mexico is a desperately poor country. It’s hard to blame the Mexicans for wanting to come here.”
There’s a little bit of truth to that, of course, but less than you might think: There is desperate poverty in Mexico, but Mexico is not a poor country. Mexico is a middle-income country, with a GDP per capita comparable to that of Argentina and Thailand, well above that of such socialist success stories as Cuba and Venezuela, and above that of such “emerging” countries as China, Brazil, and India. Mexico is almost three times as wealthy as India.
Americans — particularly American journalists and commentators — visit Mexico and see terrible poverty, or they parachute into some U.S. border town and peer across at the appalling poverty on the other side, and they understandably conclude that Mexico is a poor country, and that that is Mexico’s basic problem. Mexico’s GDP per capita does not lag far behind that of some members of the European Union such as Bulgaria and Croatia.
Like Iran, which is economically situated in a very similar way, Mexico has a great many problems that are unrelated to poverty per se. Iran and Mexico are in fact ranked right next to one another on another chart: that of the world’s most corrupt countries.
Mexico is badly governed and it wants effective institutions. That’s a good-news/bad-news situation for the United States, which, whatever the rhetoric coming out of Washington, is and for the foreseeable future will be deeply invested in the progress and development of Mexico, if only for reasons of self-interest. For the foreign-aid critics and the neo-isolationists aligned with them, the good news is that Mexico’s dysfunction is not something that can be fixed by throwing American money at it. For those with an appreciation of just how difficult institution-building and national development are, the bad news is that Mexico’s dysfunction is not something that can be fixed by throwing American money at it.
If the U.S. Treasury could just write a check for $1 trillion and have Germany for a next-door neighbor, or a second Canada, it would be the bargain of all time. But that is not how this works. Getting control of the border and of illegal immigration are desirable and necessary steps, but that is not going to solve our Mexico problem. Build the wall as high as you like, the United States and Mexico are in this together, whether we — or they — like it or not.