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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 | In the ideological debate over the merits of fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border against illegal immigration and potential terrorist threats, it has been often quoted that “good fences make good neighbors.” Given America’s strategic relationship with Mexico and our economy’s on-going dependency on migrant labor, things are not that simple. On the contrary, the administration’s recent authorization of $1.2 billion for border fencing will do little to stop illegal immigration without doing anything to address the root cause of the problem, namely poverty and lack of economic opportunity in Mexico’s economically vulnerable migrant sending communities.

According to some estimates, the cost of building a 700 mile fence along the over 2,000 border is $2.2 billion yet the 14 mile segment of fencing now under construction in San Diego will cost $126.5 million or about $9 million per mile. These figures are in stark contrast to the level of funding provided by U.S. government agencies for development and economic assistance to Mexico, totaling less than $24 million for the current fiscal year when one excludes funding for drug enforcement. This figure is down 29 percent from just three years ago.

Beyond tougher employer sanctions and guest worker provisions that would permit an orderly legal flow of migrant workers to our country, if America is serious about tackling the immigration problem it can start with putting greater attention on ways to strategically target development aid to make some of Mexico’s most under-served populations more economically self sufficient. More could also be done to foster the conditions in Mexico that will bring about economic and fiscal reforms as well as greater transparency and accountability in government – all critical if Mexico is going to improve the economic prospects for the over 45 million people in its country now living in abject poverty.

To its credit, the U.S. Agency for International Development (US AID) is supporting several worthy projects to promote micro finance and productive employment opportunities in many at- risk communities across Mexico, yet its current budget for development assistance funding is a mere $9 million – equivalent to one mile of border fencing. Absent greater leadership and enlightened judgment on the part of our government, more must be done by individual Americans who understand and appreciate the strategic importance of helping Mexico to improve living standards for its people at home as an alternative to packing up and moving north.

Across Mexico, a little investment can go a long way. For a growing number of Mexican families, the cost of basic school supplies and transportation for a public education can be cost prohibitive yet for as little as $300 a year one interested donors can cover the necessary costs to keep a teenager in secondary school. For the cost of a mile of border fencing, 30,000 at risk youth could remain in school.

Recently, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim – the world’s third richest person – committed to giving away a chuck of his fortune by matching dollar-for-dollar donations from Mexican and foreign foundations willing to support health, education and nutritional initiatives in Mexico.

Individuals, corporations and foundations across America should rise up to meet this challenge. Working together, we can collectively do more to give Mexico’s working poor the hope that they need to build a better life for their families at home than the deterrent effect of more border fencing.

Richard Kiy, is President & CEO of the International Community Foundation a San Diego based public charity committed to working with U.S. donors increase charitable giving across borders with an emphasis in Mexico. Last year, ICF contributed over $2.5 million to fund critical social needs in Mexico. More information on ICF can be found at www.icfdn.org Send a letter to the editor here.

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