Deborah Interviews Bill Ong Hing

America’s relationship to Mexico is often downplayed in the midst of the immigration debate. In the upcoming documentary, Reasonable Suspicion , we explore that relationship as we travel to Mexico City. So, when one of the contributors to my latest book, Legal Briefs on Immigration Reform from 25 of the Top Legal Minds in the Country , decided to write about that relationship, I was anxious to read what he had to say. Professor Bill Ong Hing’s legal brief, Thinking Broadly About Immigration Reform by Addressing Root Causes, hints that perhaps America should look in the mirror when considering the illegal entrance of our neighbors south of the border. Hing is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches Immi­gration Law and Policy, Evi­dence, Negotiation and Rebellious Lawyering.

Hing’s positions on immigration could be considered rebellious. He advocates for a North American Union that could lead to open labor migration, he supports amnesty for the over 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States and he calls Mexican migrants ‘economic refugees’. One of his most controversial contentions in the legal brief he contributed to the book, is that America should take some responsibility for illegal immigration due to its foreign policies. He goes one step further writing, “There is a good argument that the U.S. has an historical debt to pay for what it has done to the agricultural sector in Mexico.”

I interviewed Hing and that’s where I started.

DEBORAH: The U.S. has a debt to pay to Mexico. Explain.

HING: NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that was signed into law by Canada, the United States and Mexico in the early 1990’s. The American public was lead to believe that it would resolve the undocumented immigration challenge, thinking it would open up markets-not just in Mexico, but in the United States-for Mexican manufactures and Mexican producers. Everyone thought the jobs would be created in Mexico. The problem, and one of the foremost examples, is that behind the scenes and in the small print in NAFTA, the United States was permitted to continue to subsidize U.S. agriculture, corn farmers for example. Mexico was not able to continue doing that. As unbelievable as it may seem, today, some 15 years after NAFTA has been in effect, Mexico now imports over 95% of its corn from the United States. Mexican corn farmers have not been able to compete. They have actually gone out of business. Their workers are left without work. So, where do they look for employment? They look north of the border.

DEBORAH: So, you’re saying that has done what to immigration in the United States?

HING: It has increased the push factors from Mexico for people to come to the United States looking for work. NAFTA’s just one example. The World Trade Organization, which the United States encouraged Mexico to also join, also hurt Mexico in terms of manufacturing. Manufacturing plants in Mexico have closed over the last dozen years or so. China and other countries in Asia have cheaper workers than Mexico. If Americans look at the clothes they have on their backs, they’ll have to admit that a lot of the clothes they have have been imported from Asia, not Mexico. That’s another example of how Mexico has been caught into this trap of worldwide globalization and the economic impact has affected its workers. They have lost work.

DEBORAH: What do we do now? How do we pay that debt? How do we make it right?

HING: First of all, I wish people would calm down when it comes to the flow of undocumented workers in the United States. The reason I wish they would calm down is because I think if they understood the reasons the folks are coming here, because of economic pressures that are well beyond their ability to control their own lives. You are absolutely right when you said that I am for a North American Union that would lead to labor migration. You’re right that I’m for legalization or an amnesty program for the 10 to 12 million undocumenteds. But, I’m actually more for the right of Mexican workers to stay home to work in Mexico. So, when I talk about a North American Union, I think of the European Union, which is not a perfect example, but when the European Union allowed in poorer countries into the European Union such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland, before they allowed them in, the wealthy nations infused big investments into those countries so that those countries could create jobs of their own. And guess what? Whenever those poor countries were allowed in, labor migration was open to all those countries. But in the EU today, fewer than 2% of people born in the EU, live in another EU country; they would rather stay home. And I feel the same thing would happen if we really developed a North American Union where we worked on the economies of all three countries. Mexicans, when you interview them, the vast majority would rather stay home. They would rather be home and feed their families with employment at home. So, yes, I’m for a North American Union. Two things would result from that, open migration, but more jobs in Mexico and less of a pressure to leave Mexico to come to the United States.

DEBORAH: When we talk about NAFTA, when we talk about the North American Union, there are a lot of conspiracy theorists who say that the government is conspiring to bring the three countries together-Mexico the United States and Canada-for that North American Union. I know some people are advocating for it, but do you see that happening? Is the government going that way?

HING: I don’t think the government is going that way in the way that the conspiracy theorists are thinking. I do think that there are smart people in Canada, the United States and Mexico that understand that it’s important to help Mexico develop jobs and work on its economy. Listen, I’m the first critic of Mexico as well. I think that the Mexican government has had some history of corruption and ineptitude. I certainly would not just throw money at the government of Mexico. I think we need to sit down and figure out how to do this in a way that will put pressure on the government of Mexico. It’s not unprecedented. When the World Bank gives money, they try to put pressure on governments. In the EU again, serious pressure on countries to adopt economic policies, human rights policies and environmental policies before they’re allowed into the EU and before they’re allowed to accept the cash. I think we need to at least study; at least develop a commission to figure out how this can be done.

When I’ve given this pitch and I talk about bailing out Mexico, people always say to me, “How can you bail out Mexico when the United States is having its own problems?” I understand that. Everybody’s caught in this economic decline. But if we don’t start at least seriously talking about this, we’re never going to resolve this challenge.

When I talk about amnesty or legalization for undocumenteds, I don’t actually talk about that in isolation. Unlike many of my immigrant rights friends in Washington who are pushing for amnesty, amnesty, amnesty, I’m pushing for legalization-amnesty-at the same time as we look at what’s happening with the Mexican economy. If we only grant amnesty and put more money at the border for border enforcement, in a few years, we’re gonna have another undocumented problem. We cannot just grant amnesty. We cannot just throw money at border enforcement without talking about how to help Mexico with its economy. Otherwise, we’re gonna be in the same situation again in a few years.

DEBORAH: You call Mexican immigrants, ‘economic refugees’. That’s pretty strong. Explain that for us.

HING: It’s actually a term that I borrowed from another academic named George Lakoff . He coined the phrase. But, I think he’s absolutely right. People who are coming from Mexico are trying to feed their families. They’re not coming here to commit crimes. They’re not coming here to rip off the welfare system. They are coming here to find work for the reasons that I outlined at the beginning; because of the economic pressures that have been put on them to migrate. To me, it’s very much akin to political pressures of people who are fleeing communism, fleeing repression in other forms. Those folks are labeled refugees. I believe the same thing is happening in Mexico. Because of those economic pressures, people want to flee in order to put money in their pockets and food on the tables of their families. To me, it’s very, very analogous to being a refugee. And these folks are economic refugees.

DEBORAH: Those who would say that we need to decrease the number of immigrants in the United States, not just illegal, but legal as well, say that’s not our problem. What Mexicans are experiencing in Mexico, or any other race of people is experiencing in their home countries, is not our problem and we can’t take on everybody else’s issues. But, when you look at what’s really happening and how America is infused with our neighbors south of the border, what do you think the real issue is with those who say, “go home”‘ to the Mexicans? What is the real issue with a North American Union and with the free flowing of migrants throughout the 3 countries?

HING: Let’s be honest. The people who tout the anti-immigrant line, they are made up of a diverse group of individuals. Some of them are mislead by the economic arguments. They think that immigrants hurt the economy. All major empirical studies demonstrate that the economic argument doesn’t hold. In fact, immigrants help our economy. Even today, in the bad economic decline, there are still many, many jobs that Americans don’t take that only low-wage immigrant workers will take. A lot of people who are on that anti-immigrant side, they believe people come here and don’t want to learn English. Again, that’s not true. Community colleges have long waiting lists of people who want to learn English. I wish people would talk more to immigrants. When you interview immigrants, you find out that they want to learn English. They want their children to do well in school. They want their children to learn English, of course. So, that just doesn’t hold. Unfortunately, there’s an element in the anti-immigrant community-let’s face it-that doesn’t like the race of the folks that are coming here. And I’m talking about legal and undocumented immigrants. There are some folks who continue to look at America through a white western, northern, European lense. That’s what they think America has been and should continue to be. They don’t really believe the United States is a land of immigrants beyond western and northern Europe. To those folks, I say it’s inevitable, unfortunately for them. Things are gonna change through legal immigration and through refugee policy. It’s already started. We waste a lot of money through enforcement. We waste a lot of time and effort bickering through all this and what we ought to be doing is embracing the change and working with immigrants so we can work on inculcating them on the values we call American values and work with them about integrating into our society. That’s how we really should spend our time.

DEBORAH: But why can’t they simply come to America-legally-like any other immigrant before them?

HING: When people ask me that question, “Why are they all undocumented?”, what you don’t realize is there are numerical limitations, backlogs, and there are quotas that are very difficult to satisfy. The waiting list for many categories such as for siblings and for sons and daughters-those backlogs-run anywhere from 5 to 25 years in some cases. Some of the categories from Mexico and the Philippians are 15 to 20 years. So, it’s just not that simple to fill in the forms and become an immigrant overnight.

DEBORAH: So what do we do? We know that reform has been discussed and talked about, but we don’t have it yet. Every president has promised it. Obama promised it within his first year. That first year is gone. He said OK, first term. He’s got two years left. What do we do about immigration to work within the laws that we have to rectify this problem we have with illegal immigrants, now?

HING: What I’m proposing of course is that we sit down and look at a long-term solution with respect to Mexico and its economy. But, that’s not gonna solve the problem overnight. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that’s gonna solve the problem overnight. I think that every year-even under this administration, the Obama administration and especially under the George Bush administration-there have been billions and billions of dollars expended and appropriated for interior enforcement and border enforcement and it hasn’t done anything to slow the flow of undocumented folks coming into the United States. That’s why states are doing what they’re doing trying to keep people out of the states. But most of that is gonna be thrown out as unconstitutional. The answer to your question is in order for something to get done in the next couple of years, people are gonna have to wake up and realize that what we’ve done in the past isn’t solving the problem. Let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out how to open the Visa system a little bit more to let in the workers that we need. But, in my opinion, even that isn’t gonna be enough. We really are gonna have to sit down and work on helping to create jobs on both sides of the border and get Canada involved; Canada is very interested in this proposal. Get them involved to once and for all address the root causes of immigration pressures.

Deborah Robinson is co-editor and publisher of Legal Briefs on Immigration Reform from 25 of the Top Legal Minds in the Country.

Watch this interview on YouTube.

Read more about Deborah and Professor Bill Ong Hing at www.25LegalBriefs.com.