Saturday, July 16, 2005

Vigilantes and Illegal Immigration

Phoenix, Arizona July 15, 2005 — Now that I have returned from France and am again living in Phoenix, Arizona in the USA, I have turned my attention to local politics, but in this case, local politics that could affect the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

On April 10, 2005, Patrick Haab paused at a rest stop along Interstate Highway 8 near the city of Gila Bend, west of Phoenix, Arizona, to walk his dog, where he came across a group of seven illegal immigrants. Haab was carrying a pistol, which he used to hold the immigrants hostage as he telephoned the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. When the sheriff’s deputies arrived, they arrested not only the illegal immigrants but also Mr. Haab.

An investigation revealed that one of the seven illegal immigrants was a “coyote” or human smuggler who was transporting the others, and it is thanks to this fact that Mr. Haab is not facing criminal charges. Illegal immigration is a misdemeanor or minor crime in the United States, but trafficking in human beings is a felony, a much more serious offense. Arizona law permits a citizen to arrest someone who has committed a felony, but not to arrest someone who has committed a misdemeanor.

After reviewing the case against Patrick Haab, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas refused to press charges arguing that Haab did not commit a crime, because one of the people he detained, the coyote, had committed a felony. As to the other six detainees, Thomas argues that by cooperating with the coyote, they conspired to commit the felony and are therefore also felons. The second argument seems farfetched to many people.

Thomas’s decision not to prosecute has raised the ire of human rights groups in the Phoenix area, notably the Maricopa Country Hispanic Bar Association, which goes by the name Los Abogados ( Abogado is the Spanish word for lawyer. A representative of Los Abogados, attorney Antonio Bustamante, insists that Haab’s detention of the undocumented immigrants was illegal under federal law, and federal law supersedes state law. According to Mr. Bustamante, “The only persons who can enforce [the federal statute against human trafficking] are authorized members of the immigration service, people who are sworn police officers, not private citizens.” Others say that Bustamante’s argument, while correct as far as it goes, would only work in federal court and not in an Arizona court, where Haab would presumably be tried.

I believe that as much as possible should be done to prevent armed citizens from confronting people whom they believe to be illegal border crossers. Private citizens seldom understand the complexities of immigration law. They have no legal right to pull a gun on people whom they believe to be in the country illegally. If they do, they could spend years in prison. These vigilantes create hard feelings and contribute nothing to law enforcement. Their actions are incomprehensible to the residents of countries such as Mexico that have no tradition of citizen enforcement of the law.

However, I also have concerns with Los Abogados in particular and Hispanic pressure groups in general. Far too often these groups show little regard for the facts when they make public pronouncements. For example, Los Abogados claims that the case against Haab is open and shut, which is far from the truth. Any group that self-rightously claims to have the only valid opinion in such a complex case is either out of touch with reality, or more likely, it is pushing a private agenda.

Some Hispanic groups and Spanish-language news organizations in the United States reflexively use the terms “anti-imigrante” (anti-immigrant) and racist to describe any person with whom they disagree. I may be very much in favor of legal immigration (and I am) but if I object to illegal immigration, they may apply those terms to me. These groups would have much more credence if they would acknowledge the distinction between people who enter the U.S. legally and those who thumb their noses at the law

Perhaps Mr. Haab should be prosecuted in Maricopa Country Superior Court to give a judge the opportunity to decide the legal arguments. However, that is unlikely to happen. It is more likely that the people he detained will sue him for damages in civil court. Another possibility is that federal charges will be brought against Mr. Haab for depriving the people he held at gunpoint of their civil rights. Personally, I hope that something will be done to discourage other would-be vigilantes from following Mr. Haab’s example.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The “Latinization” of the U.S. Economy

In Latin American countries, there is an enormous difference between the rich and the poor. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy families while a large segment of the population lives in poverty. Between the rich and poor, there is a struggling but relatively small middle class whose members have almost no chance to attain wealth but who face a very real chance of falling into poverty. A few years ago, Forbes Magazine reported that Mexico had more millionaires than Germany and recently it reported that the world’s fourth-richest man in 2004 was Mexico’s Carlos Slim HelĂș, who had amassed a fortune worth $23.8 billion. (

The United States was the first major country to create a large middle class. Thanks in large part to the unionization of the work force in the first half of the Twentieth Century, factory workers acquired middle-class incomes, and the term working class began to disappear from the American vocabulary. There was a feeling of living in a “classless” society in which anyone could become wealthy through education and hard work. Coal miners and railroad workers sent their children to universities. Harry Truman, who started as a Missouri farmer and later acquired a haberdashery in Kansas City, became president of the United States. What Harry Truman had done, anyone could do. Upward mobility acquired a name: The American Dream.

However, for many Americans today, the American Dream is just that—a dream. The U.S. economy is moving toward the Latin American model with more and more of the country’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Of course, the same phenomenon is occurring in most industrialized countries, including most of Western Europe, but according to statistics compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the difference between disposable income of the upper third and lower third of the population is greater in the United States than in any other country that it surveys.

It looks increasingly unlikely that a small farmer will ever again become president of the United States. The last presidential election featured two candidates from elite New England families, both graduates of Ivy League universities (although one of them managed to market himself as a humble Texas boy).

One symptom of the economic decline of the working class in the U.S. is the inability to afford health care. In my youth and into my middle age, almost all jobs came with “benefits’ that included health insurance that was largely paid for by the employer with a smaller monthly contribution from the employee. That insurance paid most of the cost of healthcare. Now some employees of such large corporations as Wal-Mart, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and McDonald’s have no healthcare insurance at all. Wal-Mart has been accused of offering its employees “rock bottom healthcare” so that it can afford to offer its customers “rock bottom prices.”

Healthcare and the insurance that should pay for it have become very expensive in the U.S., and a company can save big money by not providing insurance and letting its employees fend for themselves. When one company reduces costs at its employees’ expense, other companies follow suit to remain competitive. A single medical emergency can overwhelm an uninsured worker’s financial resources and send him or her into a downward financial spiral that can end in poverty and homelessness.

What is responsible for the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States? Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of George Bush’s economic program. The Bush administration lowered the tax burden on the wealthy, leaving the middle class to bear more of country’s financial burdens. Its policies have also drastically raised the cost of higher education, making it more difficult for lower and middle-income families to educate their children.

However, the main culprit for the growing wealth gap is the U.S. trade policy, which was largely put into place before Bush became president. The United States has the most open market to foreign goods and services of any large country in the world. This open market coupled with Americans’ almost insatiable desire for cheap goods has resulted in a flood of products from low-cost producer companies, most notably from China. The U.S. does not export enough to pay for these imports. They are paid for by printing money and by borrowing. One result has been a loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

A well thought-out trade policy should enable a country to sell its products abroad as well as give its citizens access to goods that can be made better or more cheaply elsewhere. The United States’ trade policy is not well thought-out. It gives imported goods and services almost unfettered and untaxed access to our markets, but it does little to encourage other countries to purchase our products.

The difference between the amount of money that a country earns from abroad and the amount that it spends abroad is called the current account balance. For the U.S., the current account balance is a large deficit. The U.S. sends much more money abroad to pay for its imports than it earns from exports, the sale of investments, etc. The U.S. government borrows and prints money to make up the difference. In other words, the U.S. is running up a huge debt with the rest of the world to pay for American consumption, and it has no plan to pay off that debt.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book ( the U.S. current account deficit in 2004 amounted to $646.5 billion, and the deficit has continued its rapid growth in 2005. The current account deficit in the first three months of 2005 was $195.1 billion, 3.6% greater than during the fourth quarter of 2004. While a country whose money is the main international tender has the luxury of running a modest current account deficit in order to keep the world supplied with its currency, the enormous and growing U.S. current account deficit is unsustainable. The sooner it is reduced, the better off the U.S. and much of the rest of the world will be.

The job of getting the U.S. back on its economic feet will require some hard choices. We must gradually reduce our addiction to cheap foreign goods. This will require us to renegotiate some of our international trade agreements and perhaps even to withdraw from the World Trade Organization. Countries with which we have an enormous current account deficit must buy more from us, or we must buy less from them. Progress must be measured by results, not by promises to end restrictions on the importation of U.S. goods and services, and if goals for a specific country are not met, imports from that country must be decreased gradually, by tariffs, by import restrictions, or by negotiation. Such measures will not be popular domestically or internationally, but they are necessary. A healthy U.S. economy is not only important to the U.S., it is also in the best interest of our major trading partners.