If there was ever any doubt that the planned fence along the southern U.S. border is one of the dumbest ideas ever to come out of Washington, new estimates putting the price tag of the project at up to $37 billion should persuade everyone to forget about the whole thing.
As you may know, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner testified recently that the high-tech electronic surveillance of the border could cost up to $30 billion.
In addition, the 700-mile "physical fence" along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico that was recently signed into law by President Bush will cost up to $7 billion.
The total $37 billion price tag is more than twice last year's total foreign investment in Mexico, and it would not do much to stop Mexicans from crossing the border. As long as Mexicans and other Latin Americans can't find jobs in their home countries, they will find a way to go north. If they don't do it through Canada or by sea, they will continue flying into the United States as tourists and overstaying their visas, as nearly half of unauthorized migrants do now.
What would be a more effective way of spending this money? Here are three ideas that would help reduce migration by improving living conditions south of the border, rather than just helping Halliburton, Boeing and other major U.S. defense contractors get richer.
First, Congress should approve a bill sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to create a North American Investment Fund to build highways, roads and broadband Internet lines in southern Mexico, where most migrants are coming from.
Half of the money would be paid by Mexico and the rest by the United States and Canada, linked to Mexico's responsible economic behavior.
Largely because the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement generated considerable foreign investment in northern Mexico, the north of Mexico has boomed, while southern Mexico has remained rural and poor.
People from southern and central Mexican states are moving first to northern Mexico, and later - because they are away from home anyway - to the United States.
Most experts agree that there are few investments in southern Mexico because - while wages there are often three times lower than in northern Mexico - there are no highways to ship goods to the U.S. market. All southern Mexico roads lead to Mexico City, one of the most traffic-congested areas in the world.
Robert Pastor, head of American University's Center of North American Studies in Washington and one of the pioneers in seeking ways to reduce the U.S.-Mexico income gap, says southern Mexico could become a big magnet for investments with the proper infrastructure, and the incentive to migrate would be greatly reduced.
"If you build the roads, the ports, the communications in southern Mexico, foreign investment will come," Pastor says.
"The most important thing is to open a new highway corridor that avoids Mexico City and goes straight to the U.S. border, perhaps through Monterrey."
Second, if U.S. public opinion is against giving Mexico matching grants, it should be done through low-interest loans.
Most Americans have long forgotten this, but after former President Clinton offered a $50 billion financial bailout of Mexico in 1995, drawing bitter criticism from U.S. Mexico-bashers, Mexico paid back its debt in full, ahead of schedule.
Third, the United States, Canada and Mexico should enter a North American health care treaty that would allow U.S-certified hospitals in Mexico to treat some of the estimated 100 million Americans who will reach retirement age over the next three decades. That would help Washington reduce its deficit, help American retirees reduce health costs and help Mexico develop its health, tourism and real estate industries.
My conclusion: Any of these ideas would be much more effective in reducing illegal migration than spending $37 billion on a fence that is not only being condemned by the world, but will be pretty useless.
P.S.: I had a fourth idea for using the U.S. funds, but I won't include it in the core of this column for etiquette reasons. It's buying CNN's Lou Dobbs and other anti-Hispanic immigration zealots a one-way ticket to far-off New Zealand. It would only cost $1,206 per ticket (economy class).