February 9 - February 15, 1995


Border Bummer

By Jeff Smith

I'M NOT MUCH of an old salt, but I do possess a small store of nautical wisdom--pee to the lee, and that sort of thing.

The best common sense suggestion I've come by since Bill Clinton took the helm of the ship of state and set his meandering course through the minefield of domestic and global politics, is don't come aboard without your Dramamine. No sooner do we old-school liberals get settled and comfy with our fearless leader's starboard tack, then he spots dangerous political reefs off the bow, and hauls the wheel abruptly to port.

Confused, unbalanced and disheartened, even Clinton's most faithful crew--and those with the strongest stomachs for rough water and political tacking duels--are spending too much time puking over the side. Hopefully the lee side.

I want to give the man the benefit of every doubt, but just when he cheers my flagging spirits, he turns around and pulls something nauseating. Like this proposed border crossing fee.

Over the past weekend I read conflicting reports on precisely how much it might cost to cross the border heading north (or, in the instance of Canada, south,) but whether it turns out to be a buck a head and three per carload, or a buck-fifty and three, it's no bargain. I cannot for the life of me comprehend why a president who made the North American Free Trade Agreement the keystone of his first-half foreign policy, should then offer such a gratuitous slap in the face to the very foreign business partners he worked so diligently to sign on the dotted line.

Then again one might argue that it's not the very same foreign business partners who are impinged by NAFTA on the one hand, and the crossing fee on the other. NAFTA is for the rich boys and the crossing fee is for the poor. Up to this point in his political career, Bill Clinton has championed the cause of the downtrodden. This shift in sympathies bespeaks either a bad idea, hatched half-developed in response to impure political motives...or something far more sinister. I prefer to believe the former, but even in the best light this is not a pretty sight.

Because it hits the little guy, the small player, the grocery and clothing shopper whose pesos must be stretched to cover too much already--and whose contributions to the American border economy are absolutely critical--who will be hit and hurt hardest. In cities like Nogales, Douglas and Yuma, the border is an open door to trade on a personal level. While the men in the silk suits were working to maximize their profits through NAFTA, the grassroots economy of shopping carts and paper bags kept humming right along, keeping Mexican consumers in needed goods and services they cannot find easily at home, and keeping American businesses in black ink. Most of these border cities, the U.S. parts especially, would fold up and fall to decay were it not for the market immediately to the south of the border.

This border economy is not always robust, but it's always been there. Wild fluctuations in the exchange rate, triggered by an unstable peso, sometimes hurt border business--and no time has been worse than right now--and the last piece of news the border needs is that the U.S. is going to make it even tougher by financially penalizing the people who keep the border economy alive, and by slowing their crossings even more while they wait in line to pay the fee and make the correct change.

What's even more ludicrous is the stated purpose of the fee: to curb illegal entry by Mexicans into the U.S. This one ranks right up there with banning handguns to curb crime. Does President Clinton seriously believe illegals line up at the designated border crossings to sneak into the U.S.? Hell no, they don't. They step through holes in the fences, or they walk, drive, fly across out the middle of nowhere.

And they'll keep right on doing it this way, augmented by the numbers of otherwise legal day laborers and shoppers who are driven away from approved, supervised and legal crossing points and procedures by fees that force them to go the illegal route. Be very clear about this fact: These dollar, or dollar-and-a-half fees will add up very quickly for many Mexicans in border communities. Not all Mexicans drive brand-new Suburbans to the Price Club and load up for a month at a time. Folks in the Nogales hills, with dinky refrigerators, if any at all, shop on an almost daily basis.

They won't be doing so if there's a dollar-a-pop charge. And everybody along the border will suffer.

The fat cats in Mexico City won't suffer. And xenophobic politicians in Washington won't suffer.

But American merchants along the border will.

Rep. Jim Kolbe went right to work as soon as advance billing of the fee proposal hit the papers. He got a meeting together at his Tucson home last weekend and urged everybody with a brain to do whatever they could to kill this malcreada. I did not attend the meeting, but I am imbued with its spirit. I drive back and forth across the line like it wasn't there, mainly for supper. I'd rather leave my buck-fifty or three for the carload, as a gratuity to the waiter.

Yes. I would be billed for coming home from Mexico, just as Pancho and Jesusita would be charged for coming into our country with their hard-earned pesos, to help support our American economy.

I know I object to being billed for entering my own damn country, and I'm relatively certain that Bubba and Marlene, on their way home from a weekend drunk in Rocky Point, are going to be similarly ill-disposed.

Interesting point there: what happens if a U.S. citizen refuses to pay the head tax? Does the INS make him stay forever in Mexico? And what does the Mexican government do in response to that?

Better question: what does the Mexican government--and the Canadian government, too--do in response to this latest example of Yankee arrogance and ignorance in dealing with our next-door neighbors? At the highest levels of international business and diplomacy, probably nothing. As I pointed out, the high-rollers can afford the fee, and probably won't be assessed it anyway, because they fly over the borders rather than walk or drive across.

But down to earth where we peones live, this is just another in a line of insults to Mexican dignity and Mexican pocketbooks. And the only way the Mexicans on the street and in the tiny offices of low-level bureaucracy have of redressing their grievances is to withhold goodwill and cooperation, and make our visits to Mexico into as much of a nightmare as the meekest Mexicophobe ever imagined.

I thought we were trying to put this foolishness behind us.

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February 9 - February 15, 1995

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