Among the many surprises during the Republican Party presidential candidates’ debates a couple of weeks ago was the rekindled importance of immigration. After the failure of President George W. Bush’s and Senator Edward Kennedy’s comprehensive immigration reform effort last spring, most observers thought the matter would remain dormant until 2009, since even touching it was potentially fatal for Democrats and Republicans alike.
But as Democrats discovered in other recent debates, and as Republicans realized with a little help from the CNN organizers, who skewed the questions toward issues they feel strongly about, immigration is an issue that just won’t go away.
This is one reason why I wrote a short but – I hope – useful book on Mexican immigration to the United States, entitled “Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants. Based on internal documents from the Mexican and US governments, countless interviews, and a survey of much of the existing literature on the subject, “Ex-Mex seeks to fulfill three purposes.
First, I wanted to provide a Mexican voice in the immigration debate.
Mexicans make up more than half of the flow and stock – legal or not – of all immigrants in the US, but a point of view attempting to reflect their interests and aspirations has been largely absent from the American discussion.
Of course, my book cannot be the Mexican stance. But an assessment from the vantage point of past, current, and future Mexican immigrants to the US is a necessary component of the American debate – all the more so when one recalls that immigration has, in fact, not generally been exclusively a domestic US policy question.
The first American immigration agreement with another country was signed in 1907 – the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, while the US and Mexico negotiated and administered the Bracero Program for more than 20 years, from 1942 through 1964. And, of course, the US has had a standing immigration agreement since 1965 with a country most Americans would not imagine: Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Second, it is important to place the current, raging debate in historical context. The most important feature of that context is that the actual flow of Mexicans entering the US today is not much greater than the overall average figure for the Bracero Program period: around 400,000 per year.
It is similarly important to understand the evolution of US legislation on immigration since the 1920s, and the shifts and hypocrisy involved in the application of those laws. For example, the 1996 immigration reforms implemented by the Clinton administration, along with other, underlying structural trends, halted the traditional circular pattern whereby Mexicans came and went to the US every year. Instead, they began to settle in communities farther from the border, greatly increasing the stock of Mexicans in the US.
Finally, the efforts of the Mexican and US governments since 2001 to reach an accommodation on the issue have not been well understood. Confidential papers from the Bush and Fox administrations show that talks went further than previously known. The US, and particularly then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, was willing, as stated in a unclassified memo addressed to Bush in late August 2001, to go to great lengths to reach an understanding with Mexico on the issue. Indeed, the substance of the negotiations was not much different from the content of the Bush-Kennedy “grand bargain that was fashioned in 2007.
The electoral numbers perhaps best explain the immigration equation’s importance in today’s presidential campaigns. In 2008, it is likely that Latinos will make up 9 percent to 10 percent of the electorate, the highest share ever. They will wield decisive importance in swing states like Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and Nevada.
Having made significant inroads among Hispanic voters in 2000 and 2004, thanks to Bush’s support for immigration reform, Republicans now can barely count on 20 percent of that total – mainly among Cuban-Americans – thanks to their strident anti-immigration stance. Thus, if the Democrats demonstrate a minimum of compassion, sensitivity, and realism, they can count on a 7 percent advantage in the popular vote.
But doing so could cost Democrats dearly in old industrial states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, where the arrival of Mexican migrants, transformed into immigrants, has stoked passions. Since the Democrats’ victory will most likely depend on these states, the Democratic candidate who can square this circle, or the Republican who can break it, may well win the presidency.
Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.