While the U.S. Congress dithers over how best to stop illegal immigration, the Mexican people may have already decided the issue this past weekend. Mexicans went to the polls Sunday to pick a new president, only the second presidential election in the last 75 years that could be characterized as a truly free and democratic contest.
The more conservative, free-trade-oriented candidate, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN), appears to have eked out a slim victory with a few hundred thousand more votes than the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Although Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, fashions himself the champion of the poor, his economic policies would likely have increased poverty, not eliminated it. Like most socialists, Lopez Obrador believes in redistributing wealth, not creating it -- a failed policy that won't work in Mexico any better than it has anywhere else in the world.
But even if Calderon's narrow victory holds -- it is being challenged, and an elaborate mechanism to ensure the results are fair has now kicked in -- he still faces an uphill battle in a country that is rich in resources but has never been able to provide a decent economic environment for its people.
Mexico has oil, natural gas, abundant timber, silver and gold, and about 12 percent of its land is arable (compared with 18 percent in the United States). But Mexico's people are its most important -- and poorly tapped -- resource. More than 10 percent of Mexico's population now resides north of the border. They have come to the United States because this country affords tremendous opportunity to anyone willing to work hard. And one thing Mexicans have proven is their willingness to work.
Mexican-born men living in the United States have the highest labor force participation rates of any group, bar none. Some 94 percent of illegal alien males are in the labor force, for example, compared with a 46 percent labor force participation rate among comparably educated whites and 40 percent among blacks with less than a high school education. Yet Mexicans living in their own country suffer from high rates of underemployment. About one quarter of the Mexican population is employed only part time, and 40 percent live in poverty.
If Mexico were ever to rid itself of the rampant corruption and bureaucracy that stifles its economy, the most enterprising poor Mexicans might decide they don't need to abandon their own country to better their lives. Free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, and some 40 nations have created some opportunities in recent years, but not nearly enough. The country's economy is growing at about 3 percent a year -- a respectable rate for an already prosperous nation, but not good enough for one that has yet to achieve that status. India, for example had a GDP growth rate of 7.6 percent in 2005, while China's economy grew at almost 10 percent, and Vietnam had a growth rate of 8.4 percent.
It remains to be seen whether Calderon can build on some of the accomplishments of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, who has expanded competition in some of Mexico's vital industries but was unable to accomplish significant reform because of opposition in Mexico's Congress, which is still dominated by the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) that governed the country for more than 70 years. Nonetheless, a vote by the Mexican people to continue on the path to a more free-market-oriented economy is a welcome sign that Mexico may solve its own problems rather than relying on the escape valve that immigration, legal and illegal, has represented for decades.
With so many Latin American countries veering left in the last few years, the Mexican election was especially important. The last thing the United States needs right now is a hostile neighbor to our south, especially one whose economic fortune has the potential to so adversely affect our own. If Mexico's economy were to collapse, there would be no wall high enough to stop a flood of desperate immigrants from fleeing north.