Contemplating profit, loss across U.S.-Mexican border
Arizona Republic
Oct. 27, 2005
So in the end Arizona is a border state: between the United States and Mexico, between the developed and developing worlds, between old and new global economies, between a world of borders and no borders.

In the end we know that the economy runs on cheap labor. These aren't jobs "that Americans won't do." They're jobs that Americans won't do for a fraction of a living wage. And all over the world an unprecedented wave of human migration has washed over anyplace that runs on low-skill, low-wage labor. It happens in Shanghai, it happens in Mesa.

In the end Americans will live with the trade-offs and the shifting ground.
NAFTA helped destabilize poor villages in the interior of Mexico, sending millions of refugees to destabilize what had been the quiet Anglo working-class neighborhoods of Phoenix. And yet I run into few immigration opponents who want to pay more for their houses, hotel rooms, restaurant bills, lawn services or a hundred other products and services. When people talk about the "pro-illegal immigration lobby" among businesses, they should remember the top demand of customers: low prices. A guest-worker program may dampen the deadly industry of people smuggling, one of the few sectors outside of real estate where Phoenix can claim world-class status. But ingrained underground economies are notoriously hardy. A new paradigm of international economics would be nice. How can we ease big-time capitalism's ravenous destabilization of traditional societies? A European Union-style approach to investment and education applied to Mexico, raising it to First World status, would have eased the pressures that drive people into the lethal desert.

But in the end this is where we are. Millions of first-generation, low-skilled immigrants with limited English are here, all across the nation, but especially in the cities of Arizona. The challenge and opportunity now is how to nurture this human capital.

In the previous historic wave of immigration, at the turn of the 20th century, the same kinds of people could enter the industrial economy and learn skills; their children became factory foremen and small-shop owners, their grandchildren millionaires. Today's economy exploits low skills but penalizes the workers. We risk a generation sealed off in the lawn services and kitchens and then a large underclass.

This is why quality of education for all children in Arizona can't be an ideological parlor game. But more will be necessary. As Richard Florida has advocated, we must develop "port-of-entry jobs" into the information economy. This means improving the pay, benefits and working conditions for a host of service jobs that involve creativity. We also need far more capital and entrepreneurial support in immigrant neighborhoods.

Yes, I want this wave of immigrants to become Americans, enriching the national identity as have all their forerunners. They must become very proficient in English to be competitive in the world economy. Yet we can expect little of them if they labor in a society radically segregated by income and social mobility.

Arizonans are not accustomed to being in the vanguard of anything. Comfort and sunshine, that's what we treasure. But this is the way it is. Addressing it won't be cheap. But if we fail, believe me, your property values in Paradise Valley won't be worth much.

Reach him at or (602) 444-8464.