The View From the Other Side

Jorge Bustamante lives on the other side of the border. His condominium can be found by watching for one of two landmarks. One is a huge statue on the Avenue of the Heroes of a caped Mexican general on horseback. The other is a Domino's pizza parlor. That is the way of the border, Bustamante will say, a bit of this country, a bit of that, a collision of "two contrasting economies, two contrasting cultures, two contrasting societies."

Bustamante is a student of that collision. For 20 years now, the 55-year-old demographer has explored the border, monitoring the ebb and flow of immigrants. He is recognized as one of the world's best experts on the subject. He is also one of the most ignored: For what Jorge Bustamante has to say about the border and immigrants, especially undocumented ones, is not what most of us want to hear.

What we want--at least if you buy the polls and call-in prattle--are the myths, and we reward the politicians who promote them. The undocumented immigrant is a common criminal, out to steal work and welfare. Every living soul in Mexico aspires to come north, just as every pregnant woman there dreams of a stateside delivery. These supplicants from the south have wrecked our economy. Better they would all go away.

Bustamante does not see it this way. He does not deal in myths.


Unlike our governor and U.S. senators, Bustamante does not go to the border to prop up approval ratings or give a good photo op. He goes to interview border-crossers, to survey them, track them, observe them, even live with them. His views are shaped, not by what he calls "the phantoms and ghosts of ideology," but by demographic studies, economic indexes--hard data.

"I am a scientist," he says. "My principal activity is to do research. I do research not because I want to change the world. It is because I want to find the truth, to demystify reality."

Bustamante has come to regard the flow of undocumented workers as a mutually beneficial exchange, a transaction driven by the laws of supply and demand. The immigrants receive a better job, a chance to save, to build a future, to hope. The employers, in turn, get "an almost perfect worker. A worker who has no rights, who can't complain. He takes jobs no one else wants, and at low wages. That's one reason the Border Patrol has never been equipped to stop the flow. The demand for cheap labor in the United States is as real as the demand in Mexico for employment."

He remembers how Richard Nixon's immigration czar once initiated something called Operation Jobs. The economy was in a slump, and the idea was that every illegal immigrant expelled would mean one more job for an American. Since there were an estimated 20 million illegals--"the numbers," Bustamante says parenthetically, "are the myth behind all myths"--total expulsion would "create" 20 million jobs. The crackdown went quite well. Too well. In hindsight, the complaints from farmers with unpicked harvests and sweatshops with idled sewing machines were predictable.

"There was a mushroom company in North California that was about to go bankrupt," Bustamante recalls. "It had been raided. I guess the conditions in that job are very bad, dark and humid, and nobody else was interested. American culture has labeled certain jobs as failure. People say, 'I will go on welfare or commit crimes before I take a job like that.' "

And who does that leave to do the work?


Bustamante contends that the best solution would be "not an open border, but a managed border," with rules of the game negotiated upfront between the two nations, just like a trade treaty. "Instead of all these myths about the 'silent invasion of a brown tide,' " he asks, "why can't we accept reality and call that reality by its name, which is 'labor demand.' Why don't we admit that it exists and deal with it rationally?"

He knows too well the answer. He knows the simple reason why Pete Wilson, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and the rest--burdened by unbalanced budgets, base closures, deficits--have bounded down to the border to shamelessly blame Mexicans for our own economic mess: It works.

"It pays to blame Mexicans," he says. "They are taking advantage of something that has been shown to be profitable politically. I have studied all periods of economic recession in the U.S. in this century--1907, 1929-35, 1947, 1954, '74, '81--and in all those years there is a pattern of U.S. politicians blaming immigrants, particularly Mexicans. But it is important to remember this Mexico-bashing is not based in reality. It is based in political ideology, in myths."

And he does not deal in such matters.

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