President Vicente Fox paused for a long moment before answering a question on how long it would take Mexico to reach a stage where citizens no longer want to cross the U.S. border to seek work.

"Generations," he finally said.

"It’s a long way to narrow the gap … between incomes in Mexico and on the other side of the border," he said in a recent interview with Reuters.

That income gap is the principal reason why hundreds of thousands of Mexicans cross the border with the U.S. illegally to seek work — yet it rarely figures in the heated and increasingly emotional debate over immigration now raging in the United States.

Roughly half of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5 a day, according to government figures. The U.S. minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Annual Mexican Gross Domestic Product per capita is just under $7,000. It is almost $44,000 in the United States.

The gap is now wider than it was when Mexico, the United States and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992.

The treaty took effect two years later and was supposed to generate more jobs in Mexico, raise incomes and, as a consequence, reduce the number of Mexicans crossing the 2,000-mile border with their superpower neighbor, legally or illegally.

That has not happened and the number of Mexicans making the increasingly dangerous and expensive trek north has risen steadily over the past few years.

Mexican experts say that the rival immigration reform bills now being debated in the United States will have limited effect as long as income disparity remains as deep as it is now.

"Migration is a question of supply and demand," said Jorge Bustamante of the Northern Frontier College in Tijuana. "Demand in the U.S. for Mexican labor has been growing. The money is better on the other side. That’s the main factor."

Said Jorge Chabat, of Mexico City’s Center for Economic Investigation and Teaching (CIDE): "There are two ways to tackle the migration problem: improve the (Mexican) economy or introduce a more flexible (U.S.) border policy, more toward an open border."

That is not likely to happen. Public opinion polls in the United States show that a large majority of Americans are in favor of stricter border controls and even a border wall.


"Average wages in Mexico will eventually rise enough to hold people here," said Federico Estevez, head of the political science department of ITAM, a leading Mexico City university. "It will take time. But huge labor migrations have been stopped before by economic opportunities. Look at Portugal and Spain."

Workers from the two countries used to migrate to Germany and France much in the same way Mexicans have been moving to the United States.

But when the European Union expanded in the 1980s and adopted new members, including Spain and Portugal, it spent more than $500 billion in aid to narrow the income gap between the newcomers and the most prosperous EU countries. Immigration dropped sharply.

The idea of providing aid to Mexico has not been part of the public discourse in the United States, where the economic conditions of its southern neighbors are seen as their own affair. U.S. proponents of EU-style subsidies to lift Mexico closer to its partners in NAFTA are few and far between.

One of them is Robert Pastor, head of the Center for North American Studies at the American University in Washington. Pastor has for years argued that the U.S., Canada and Mexico should set up a North American investment fund to finance infrastructure projects and shrink the income gap between Mexico and its richer partners.

An investment of $20 billion a year over the next 10 years in Mexico in roads and communications connecting the poor southern part of Mexico to the North American market, Pastor says, would attract new companies to invest in Mexico and encourage many Mexicans to stay home and others to return.

"The idea of funding development in Mexico may sound ludicrous to many," Pastor said, "and it would not end illegal immigration overnight. But it would end it eventually. And besides, it would benefit the U.S. economically."

© Reuters 2006