Two hundred twenty-two years and two weeks ago today, the United States made the peso its official currency. Nonetheless, many Americans (read: Fox News) went nuts last week when Value Giant announced that it would start accepting pesos in all of its stores on Saturday, July 14, fearing an increase in peso-spending illegal immigrants to the United States.
Of course, the U.S. dollars that we know and love today were issued in 1792, but the peso continued to be recognized as the official currency of North American trade until 1857 in the United States, and until 1858 in Canada. We have a long, proud history of doing business in pesos. Our currency, along with the Straits dollar, the Hong Kong dollar, the Japanese yen, and the Chinese yuan, is modeled on the peso. We have the handy peso to thank for much of our early economic development as a nation.
Value Giant was following in the footsteps of Pizza Patrón, which generated a similar brouhaha when it pioneered its "Pizza por Pesos" program in January—exacerbating the problem posed by its patriotically dubious accent over the "o." The chain recently announced the decision to make the policy permanent at all 60 restaurant locations, including those as far north as Las Vegas. One of their specialties is the tasty "La Mexicana," topped with chorizo, ground Beef, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños.
Pizza Patrón founder and chief executive Antonio Swad is unapologetic. "We have carved this niche in the pizza industry to compete and serve an underserved market–the Latino customer. Not to make any political statement."
But after a season of death threats and hate mail, Pizza Patrón is feeling smug: Sales are up 34.8 percent over the previous year. "Perhaps our first quarter store sales are a vindication of sorts for occupying a unique position in the marketplace and not yielding to the pressure from the opposition," mused spokesman Andrew Gamm.
All this currency pluralism has provided an opportunity for another round of anti-immigrant rhetoric. As usual, opponents of peso acceptance say they're only worried about illegal immigrants. But this line of argument veils broad anti-immigrant sentiment even more thinly than usual. There's no particular reason to think illegal immigrants are more likely to have pesos on hand than legal ones. If anything, they'd be the most anxious to hide their origins by using American dollars whenever they can. Illegal immigrants can even open bank accounts with their pesos (and without a Social Security number) to get all the dollars they need.
Then there's the plan proposed by Olivia of Baton Rouge, LA, in the "Fox Fan Speakout": "They should only accept pesos if they charge an extra 50% ... maybe we could get back some of the money we are losing to Mexico that way!"
Accepting pesos in U.S. businesses is actually found money in the U.S. economy, even without the 50 percent surcharge. Many Pizza Patrón customers have pesos "sitting in their sock drawers or in their wallets," Gamm said. "We're talking small amounts, where it would be inconvenient to stop and exchange on the way back-maybe 10 or 20 dollars' worth of pesos." Change is given in U.S. currency.
In fact, customers are getting ever so slightly charged for the use of pesos, since the company set their conversion rate slight higher than the official exchange of 11 pesos per dollar.
Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin's head predictably bursts into flames in response to this development. ("Sovereignty? What sovereignty? Borders? What borders?") In a post about Value Giant, filed under the category "Reconquista," she also incorrectly writes that "Another Dallas retailer, Pizza Patron, kicked off the trend in January." (Note the absence of the subversive accent mark.)
In fact, border towns have long accepted foreign currencies in North America. The hand wringing about the possibility that Dallas pizzerias and discount stores accepting pesos will somehow enable or support illegal immigration ignores longstanding policies at Wal-Mart, H-E-B supermarkets, and other American chains in towns along the Mexican border to accept pesos.
Businesses near Niagara Falls have cheerfully taken American tourist dollars on the Canadian side for decades. And despite their vastly superior health care system and renowned politeness, sloppy currency swapping on the U.S.-Canada border has not proved to be a spur for northerly immigration there.
Even if all currency flow from Mexicans to private businesses was cut off tomorrow—and no one could undermine the American Way of Life by using their pesos to buy cheap DJ equipment or Seiko watches at Value Giant—the peso would remain with us in every dollar transaction. The dollar symbol, according to most historical accounts, originally stood for "pesos" or otherwise found its way into our language via Spanish colonial currency. You might say it snuck into our symbolic lexicon the way all those sneaky good for nothing illegals are doing as we speak.
Fox's Neil Cavuto pressed Value Giant CEO Kevin Pate to admit that there was a theoretical possibility that an illegal immigrant could come in and spend his dirty pesos in Pate's stores: "It would kind of stretch the imagination if at least some weren't. Where a lot of these stores are, you're not all that far from the border."
"These stores" are in Dallas—the closest store is 422 miles from the border. It's unlikely that an illegal immigrant is going to decide to slip past the fence, push through a grueling trek across the desert, and then continue for another 420 miles, all because he heard he could find rest, succor, and a place to spend his pesos in Dallas. And even if he did, he would just be imitating the millions of proud American pioneers who did the same more than 200 years ago, trading their Spanish eight-real coins for whatever their northern neighbors had to offer.
One difference, though: Once a modern immigrant is here, he can get a delicious slice of pizza, too.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.
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