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Business Observer Friday, May 28, 2004 14 years ago

Throw Away Stereotypes

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The U.S. is wasting the economic benefits of immigration from Mexico. It's time to include the human factor in NAFTA. Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist, who publishes a trade monthly Cuba Trade & Investment News

Throw Away Stereotypes

The U.S. is wasting the economic benefits of immigration from Mexico. It's time to include the human factor in NAFTA.

When State Sen. Rudy Garcia (R-Hialeah) in April pulled a bill that would have lowered the obstacles for undocumented foreigners to get and renew driver's licenses in Florida, he said he did so after flak from law enforcement officials and Republican constituents.

I can only guess what Garcia's constituents are thinking. But the typical assumptions that cause many Republicans to object to easing the lives of foreigners who come here without the proper stamp in their passports are: 1) they're violating U.S. laws, which should not be rewarded; 2) after 9/11, we should not let our guards down; 3) when they're allowed to, immigrants will vote Democratic anyway; and 4) they're leeches sucking the lifeblood of our economy and welfare state.

Let's put a face on that last assumption.

Meet Esperanza Ceballos, who may or may not have had proper documentation when she came to this country 33 years ago from western Mexico, pregnant, with a husband and seven children.

She started her new life in the fields and groves of Washington State, picking tomatoes, apples, asparagus and strawberries. Eventually, they realized that winter was seriously limiting their opportunities in the Northwest. So, following a friend's invitation, they packed their few belongings in a rickety van and moved to Homestead, whose year-round produce economy showed more promise. In 1981, the family moved to Myakka City, to work the orange groves and pick tomatoes.

During most of her life, Ceballos worked from 5 a.m. to midnight, six days a week. She eventually had 11 children, and later got divorced. Now in her 60s, she never really learned to speak English or even drive a car, but last year she applied for U.S. citizenship. She is still in close touch with her six siblings in Mexico (three are in the United States), and she dreams of moving back to her hometown.

This is where the cliches end.

For one, she never applied for food stamps, rent subsidies, or unemployment benefits. What's more, Dona Mancha, as friends call her respectfully-lovingly, now lives in south Sarasota, surrounded by the symbols of American middle-class prosperity. On any given day, at least one of her children, most of whom live nearby, visit the matriarch at her neatly kept ranch-style, three-bedroom home complete with white tile floors and a pool, crowding the driveway and front lawn with late-model Mercedes-Benz SUVs, Ford F-250s and Honda Accords.

In typical rural understatement, she describes her situation as "I'm doing a little well" (un poquito bien).

Dona Mancha's main pride are her 11 children. They are all bilingual, and completed at least high school; all, except one, are U.S. citizens; two of her sons own seemingly prosperous produce brokerage businesses; three of her daughters are dental hygienists; one is married to a dentist; and another one helps her husband run a homebuilding business.

To highlight the values she tried to instill in her children, she tells the story of one of her sons: When he worked in a manufacturing plant in Manatee County to save money, he even changed his diet. Eventually, he had $15,000 set aside and bought his first home, at age 21. "He only ate hamburgers, the poor thing," Dona Esperanza says, half-scolding, half-proud. "He didn't want to spend any money, even on food. I had to feed him real food on weekends."

Dona Mancha's mantra goes like this: Work hard and spend cautiously - but ultimately you want to be your own boss. Already in Washington, the family's penny-pinching lifestyle allowed them to build equity. They saved a few thousand dollars to buy two or three run-down rural cottages, cash in hand, refurbish them in their free time, and sell them at a profit. In Homestead, the family began to pick tomatoes on their own account, selling the harvest at a Miami market. The family continued this entrepreneurial approach in Manatee County. Eventually, the informal family business made the leap to the formal economy. One of her sons partnered with a Tampa businessman to start Red Diamond Inc., a tomato brokerage. The brokerage now sells millions of dollars worth of produce every year.

Not one to sit still, even close to retirement age, Dona Mancha actually continues to be an entrepreneur. For one, with her vast experience in child-rearing, she started a home daycare business two years ago. Even though she barely speaks a few words of English, she was able to obtain a license from the local YMCA for the business. What's more, she is financially supporting the family ranch in Mexico. Partly thanks to her remittances and suggestions, the family farm in the mountains of the state of Jalisco has recently prospered and grown to 200 cows. "My cows," she says with a laugh.

These achievements happened in spite of the obstacles we put in front of people like Dona Mancha. The family was able to grow its business thanks to savings and "internal loans" from siblings, parents and friends. It wasn't until 1991, 20 years after her arrival, that she first got access to a formal bank loan here. And it wasn't even hers - one of her U.S.-born children had to sign the papers.

Just imagine how the economy of Southwest Florida would prosper if some of the 40,000-plus peers of Dona Mancha in Sarasota and Manatee counties had the same access to the economy as everybody else does.

Now to assumption No. 3 - immigrants vote Democratic. Maybe so for most of them. But Dona Mancha's conservative cultural values actually put her closer to the Republicans than Democrats, and her repeated complaints about regulatory obstacles to her business ventures, and her business links to Mexico would probably make her receptive to free-market and free-trade arguments. After all, people like Dona Mancha in Mexico voted a conservative president into power four years ago. Gov. Jeb Bush probably understands that, which is why he has been backing Rep. Garcia's driver's license bill.

Here comes assumption No. 2 - opening the gates to Mexicans would allow terrorists to sneak in. Return question: Did any of the 9/11 terrorists have ties to Mexico? They had ties to Germany, Canada and Saudi Arabia, but not the remotest link to Latin America. Our concerns should at least as much be with the Canadian border. Also, as the European Union has shown, high standards of control can be achieved by having new member nations agree to certain immigration procedures.

As to assumption No. 1 - yes, they're breaking existing laws. Problem is, an estimated 24 million immigrants actually do so. Not enough enforcement? The United States actually built a wall along some stretches of the border and hired scores of border guards. This has led migrants to take higher risks, pay higher fees to "coyotes," and produced more deaths, but it hasn't had an apparent impact on the total number of illegal crossings.

The law and underlying politics should reflect these realities. I strongly believe we should go way beyond the cyclical amnesties and temporary fixes such as Garcia's driver's license bill. Here's one way to "eliminate" two-thirds of illegal immigrants in one stroke: Let Mexicans come to this country freely. And let Canadians settle and work here as they wish, too.

It's time to talk about expanding NAFTA to include people.

Partially thanks to the decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico is now the United States' second-largest trade partner and closing in fast on the No. 1, Canada. You can see this at the border in Laredo, Texas, where tens of thousands of tractor-trailers and thousands of freight trains rumble across bridges over the Rio Grande every year, both ways. At the same time, the Mexican people trying to cross are facing much more scrutiny. This is absurd.

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Soon, the new American reality will hit some 13 million visitors from 27 nations, who are still allowed to travel to the United States without a visa. As of Sept. 30, the Department of Homeland Security will force European Union citizens, including Germans, Britons, Dutch and Austrians, as well as Swiss, Australian and Japanese visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed, an internationally unusual procedure.

How much this will take away from the easy-going appeal of Florida as a vacation destination is up to anyone's guess. Brazilians were so enraged that they "retaliated," by forcing U.S. citizens through the same procedure. Florida tourism officials should be concerned.

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Although none signed a contract worth more than $1 million, Florida companies made up the largest contingent of any state at a quasi-trade fair for U.S. companies in Cuba April 14-16. The 173 U.S. companies who attended the "First Round of Negotiations Cuba-United States 2004" in Havana netted $86.8 million in contracts to sell Cuba goods ranging from agricultural commodities, cattle and processed food, to paper and wood. Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues on the campaign trail, announcing on May 6 yet another new set of measures to restrict the money flow to the island. But demonstrating that he's not interested in substantial moves against Cuba, George W. Bush didn't dare touch the flourishing agricultural trade. Could that have to do with the political power of Midwestern agribusiness?

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist. He carries a German passport and publishes a trade monthly, Cuba Trade & Investment News. He can be reached at [email protected].

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