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President George Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari have announced plans for negotiations that could lead to elimination of most trade barriers between the United States and Mexico. It is a move the two leaders hope will revitalize Mexico's weakening economy while bolstering North America's position in world markets.

This step towards closer economic cooperation is a welcome respite. Tensions between the two countries have been growing in recent months, due in part to differing views on how to conduct anti-drug efforts and long-standing friction over U.S. immigration policies.Regarding the latter, Salinas has a pertinent reply for critics of the plan. "Where do you want Mexicans working, in Mexico or the United States? We want to export goods, not people."

While many Americans share that view, critics of the plan raise concerns about impacts on the U.S. job market and the potential flight of businesses looking for cheaper labor across the border while maintaining good access to U.S. markets.

Supporters see the move as breaking down existing barriers, providing new factories for Mexican workers and a new market for U.S. machinery and know-how.

Supporters also see successful negotiations providing another important step in creating a single North American production zone. A 1988 agreement with Canada removed barriers restricting the movement of goods, services and investments between the U.S and its northern neighbor. Those same kinds of barriers can be eliminated between the United States and Mexico without doing serious harm to the U.S. economy, the supporters claim.

"We are increasingly seeing a world that is divided into regional production blocs," said Delal Baer, an expert on Mexico at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. "I think a good case could be made for a North American regional production bloc to meet competition in the world arena."

There are other expected benefits as well. Some observers believe a growing Mexican economy would not only create jobs but reduce the current disparities between the United States and Mexican wage levels - currently about 12-1. And they believe an improved living standard could lead to smaller families in Mexico, easing population pressures.

And as possibly the greatest direct social benefit to the United States, many believe strengthening Mexico's legitimate economy would also reduce the temptation for Mexican farmers to go into drug production.

Mexico has traditionally been a good neighbor and good neighbors help each other. This proposal provides an opportunity to put this principle to work in a positive way benefiting both countries.

Granted there will be some minor adverse impacts. There always are. And some people will be inconvenienced by the agreement. But it is an agreement that bodes well for both countries in the long-term, and that is where the future lies.