Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Jeffrey Jones, undersecretary of agriculture and agribusiness for Mexico's Ministry of Agriculture, discusses NAFTA with students at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

The flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States has become one of today's most touchy political subjects.

However, neither nation truly realizes the economic value of roughly half a million people who cross the border each year, said Jeffrey Jones, undersecretary of agriculture and agribusiness for Mexico's Ministry of Agriculture.

For the U.S., the influx creates challenges, but the overall net economic result is positive. However, the perception is largely the opposite.

Meanwhile, he says, in Mexico there's a general lack of understanding of the long-term implications of the declining labor force.

"If we (Mexico) realize we are the net losers of a one-way massive migration," he said, "we are more likely to do the things we need to do in our country to retain the human capital."

Jones, who was in Salt Lake to discuss trade relations between the U.S. and Mexico, met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., visited with students at the University of Utah, and spoke at a Zions Bank luncheon.

He said Mexico needs to do more to overcome barriers it has created internally to economic development. He pointed to a recent report that suggests Mexico's economy could make great strides through measures such as eliminating the red tape for starting businesses and reforms in business and labor.

"Those sum up to an 8 to 10 percent growth rate," he said. "There's no reason why India or China should be growing at a higher rate."

And, he said, developing the economy internally is key to long-term economic development. The remittances relied on in some rural parts of Mexico create a short-term solution, which he said last for only 15 years, since those born in the U.S. aren't sending money.

The Mexican official has ties to Utah. He attended Brigham Young University and his daughter, Melina Jones, is a political science student at Utah Valley State College.

While working for Mexico's first lady Margarita Zavala de Calderon over the summer, Melina Jones invited her to visit Utah. That visit is on the first lady's agenda for next spring but has yet to be confirmed, Jeffrey Jones said.

"It's a part of cuddling up, so to speak, of leadership in the way we talk about things, and the idea of what we need to do to create stronger and deeper relationships," he said.

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Better political relationships would help bolster economic relationships, Jones said. To be more competitive on a global scale, Jones suggested that the U.S., Canada and Mexico should work more closely to build on existing economic ties.

He suggested, for example, North American quality standards for products that are exported globally as a way to benefit producers in all three countries.

The border is a good place to start. He suggests both countries should strengthen cooperative efforts along the border as a launching point for greater economic cooperation.

"Putting this fence down there, it's Medieval technology," he said. "It's just a matter of sharing information. ... The solution to the problem is technology."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com