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GUEST OPINION

Immigration a hot topic in a crowded world

Hackles are raised whenever the topic of immigration comes up. There is no shortage of strongly held opinions when it comes to the bill now before Congress. Only one thing is certain: no one can seriously claim that our current policies are working.

There are more than 12 million people whose status and future in the United States is unknown. Border enforcement is still spotty. Then there's the thorny question of temporary workers for industries ranging from high tech to agriculture.

But something seems to have been left out of the picture. That something is Mexico itself - the large, oil-rich nation with which we share a 2,500-mile land border. Mexico is the largest single source of U.S. immigration as well as our third largest trading partner.

Looking at Mexico and beyond, we might start thinking more broadly about migration, not just immigration. Everyone who comes to the United States to make a new life or to seek a new job is a migrant. Most are leaving crowded places with difficult social, economic or political environments.

There are some 200 million people worldwide who are living outside their countries of origin. A relatively small share of the world's migrants come to the U.S. Indeed, many countries face migration challenges tied to rapid population growth.

Migration is, or should be, a foreign policy issue. Yet it is almost always talked about only in a domestic context - as if people simply materialize at our borders. Only then do we even start to figure out what to do about them.

The very fact that we share our southern border often seems to be overlooked. It's Mexico's border, too. A major social or economic disruption in Mexico would create population pressures unlike any we've ever seen.

Mexican migrants, mostly in the U.S., send home an estimated $23 billion in remittances annually to their typically poor families. Sharp curtailment of this money flow would have a major impact on our southern neighbor.

For two countries that share a long border, we are strikingly different. Per capita income in Mexico is less than a quarter of what it is in the U.S. It is among the five top nations in terms of its oil production. Yet it has a handful of very wealthy people with many millions living in great poverty.

Thirty-five years ago the average Mexican woman had almost seven children. Today the average family has 2.4 children - a stunning revolution that will affect migration. We could do much to help Mexico continue to reap the full benefit of smaller families.

New U.S. immigration laws, if enacted, will make a difference, one way or another. But the harsh rhetoric of recent years isn't likely to stop. Goodwill between nations and people can be used up just like any other resource.

It is in our national interest to have strong friends and allies at our borders. That means turning down the volume a bit on the immigration debate. It also means sitting down with our neighbors to find mutually workable approaches to migration, population growth and other issues.

Our geography makes for a shared destiny. We can help encourage smaller families and a better economy for our neighbor to the south.

The next time a news report comes on about Mexican politics or the Mexican economy, don't change that channel. Globally speaking, it's local news that directly affects the place we all call "home."

John Seager is the president of Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth), a grassroots advocacy group. His email address is john@popconnect.org.

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