Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto won't be visiting the United States after all.Marco Ugarte / Associated Press
Mexico just found out how grumpy the new neighbor can be. It has to be a bit unsettling.
President Donald Trump Tweeted Thursday that unless Mexico will pay for a wall along its border with the United States, President Enrique Pena Nieto shouldn't bother coming for a meeting the two leaders had planned for Tuesday in Washington. Nieto Tweeted back that canceling was fine with him.
Ah, well. Hasta luego.
The two have been sparring over payment for the wall since Trump started saying in the presidential campaign that he'd make Mexico foot the bill. He signed an executive order this week directing that the wall be built, but it's one he can't back up unless Congress appropriates the money for it. Trump says he'll make Mexico reimburse the United States for the building costs.
Well, that seems unlikely -- and unnecessarily churlish. If we want a wall on our side of the border, we should buy it ourselves.
None of this is happening the way we usually do things here in North America. Ever since we stopped chasing Pancho Villa 100 years ago, we Norteamericanos worked according to a no-fuss, no-bluster system: The United States decides what it wants, and either that happens or we pretend it happens.
And despite what the imperialism scolds in the faculty lounge might say, the United States really is the best of neighbors -- wealthy, low-key, slow to demand, quick to forgive.
We've let a lot of shenanigans slide over the last century. As Mexico's kleptocrat-run economy failed repeatedly to find its way out of the dumper -- and Mexican labor streamed north to chase more lucrative work than could be found at home -- we officially held our peace.
We've endured crime in our border towns as well as drug running, human trafficking and other mayhem throughout the rest of the country.
But it was by no means an all-cost, no-benefit situation. Farming and ranching operations, packing houses and other operators of hot, dusty, smelly, back-breaking businesses found in that incoming human tide plenty of low-cost help with low expectations for working and living conditions and no power whatsoever to demand anything.
At times, Mexican manpower got official recognition through guest-worker programs.
The Bracero program, which invited Mexicans to come to the United States legally for farm work, brought 4.6 million laborers in from 1942 to 1964. (At the same time, 4.9 million came across the border without filling out the paperwork.)
Now, our H-2A visa program allows agricultural businesses to recruit foreign temporary workers. Farmers and migrant workers who are willing to put up with bureaucratic inefficiency and thick layers of red tape participate enthusiastically. Those who want to make some money before the crops rot in the fields are glad to circumvent it enthusiastically.
Those crops, meanwhile, aren't alone in putting down roots. As the illegal-immigration hawks at the Center for Immigration Studies aptly put it, "There is nothing more permanent than temporary workers."
Depending on who's in charge, the federal government has been more or less willing to ignore the problem of illegal immigration. The benefits were generally viewed as outweighing the costs, and nobody cared much about the workers as individuals. Agribusiness owners contributed to political campaigns; illegal immigrants didn't even vote.
But the feds' blind eye suddenly recovered its sight Jan. 20. And not a week later, President Nieto got a look at Kim Jong Trump: I will have a wall! Bring me one or you are not welcome here!
No one should argue that the United States ought to be building a bridge with Mexico rather than a wall. Mexico has a history of cynically exploiting our lax immigration enforcement, and that should end.
A wall would help with that -- a little bit. Fulfilling other orders Trump issued the same day, also without the force of funding behind them, would help more. Trump wants another 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to aid in apprehending and deporting people who are in the United States illegally.
But what really needs to happen is a crackdown on businesses that employ illegal immigrants. The fines max out at $4,313 per illegal worker, first offense; $10,781 per worker, second offense; and $21,563 per worker, subsequent offenses. Something -- either the deterrent or the enforcement -- isn't sufficient.
It would be nice if local governments would cooperate in enforcing immigration law, but the federal government cannot commandeer state or local resources to do its bidding. (This is a good thing.)
Trump has, however, ordered the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to withhold "federal funds, except as mandated by law" from places that bill themselves as sanctuary cities. That's unlikely to dry up the local coffers, since Supreme Court-approved case law requires any such withholding to be "relevant to the federal interest" in achieving some goal. (That's also a good thing.) Only so much federal money given to cities can be credibly linked to federal immigration-enforcement purposes.
"We do not need new laws" on immigration, Trump said Wednesday. He's almost certainly right. We probably don't need a wall, either.
What we need is a federal government that's serious about border security, visa overstays and immigration enforcement in the workplace. We've been overly gracious hosts long enough.
O'Brien is The Plain Dealer's deputy editorial page editor.
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