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Mon, Jan. 20

Column: Thirst for cheap labor, goods fuels problem

A poignant scene from the summer has been recurring in my mind lately.

A Mexican woman and her young son are standing in a Safeway parking lot, staring at the words painted on the rear window of a large truck: "Attention Mexicans: I Shoot First and Ask Questions Later. Go Back Where You Came From."

Looking up with teary eyes as I walked past them, the woman said in broken but understandable English, "I am here legally and so is my son. I work hard every day to give him a good life. But I want him to see this, to know how some people feel about us. Better to know than to hide him from the truth, only to learn it later."

I merely stumbled on this scene by happenstance, yet wanted to offer something encouraging in response. "I'm so sorry," I said, looking first at the woman and then the boy. "Lo siento. Not all of us feel that way. It's a difficult issue for many people."

"Yo comprendo, I understand," the woman said. "It is also like that for some people that I know, so filled with hate and anger for the Anglos. Thank you for stopping to speak with us. Muchas gracias, señor." And with that they were gone.

I've thought a lot about this brief encounter lately, noticing how easy it is to move from political rhetoric to hate speech. The "build a wall and crack down" crowd helps create a climate that could encourage those who spout lines like "shoot first," just as "open borders" advocates must take some accountability for the drug smugglers and human traffickers who could use their sentiments as cover.

Still, pragmatically speaking, I'm closer to the "open borders" perspective than the "build a wall" view. When people are hungry and desperate, there isn't a wall high or wide enough to deter them. If I were in that situation and my family were suffering, I might even consider it a moral obligation to use any means necessary to give my children hope for a better life.

It's also problematic that, through devices such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, we allow the free flow of capital and commerce but not human beings. And it's reprehensible that U.S. corporations, with the complicity of governments on both sides, have taken advantage of lax environmental and labor laws to hasten a profound social and ecological crisis in Mexico.

Some will say that this is all too bad, but it's not our problem. Yet we buy the goods produced in the maquiladoras, and enjoy a great quality of life often at the expense of our neighbors. We also benefit from their labor here in the U.S., as farmhands, nannies, landscapers and construction workers. Indeed, our desire for cheap consumer products and a ready labor force make it our problem.

And it's surely our problem when hurtful threats become socially acceptable forms of expression.

Randall Amster teaches peace studies and social thought at Prescott College. His e-mail address is

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