Immigration -- the issue that won't go away
Posted on Sun, Dec. 23, 2007
By JORGE G. CASTANEDA
Among the many surprises during the Republican Party presidential
candidates' debates a few weeks ago was the rekindled importance of
immigration. After the failure of President George W. Bush's and Sen.
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 U.S.
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 United States, 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 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 U.S. policy question.
The first American immigration agreement with another country was signed
in 1907 -- the so-called Gentleman's Agreement with Japan, while the
United States and Mexico negotiated and administered the Bracero Program
for more than twenty years, from 1942 thru 1964. And, of course, the
United States has had a standing immigration agreement since 1965 with a
country most Americans would not imagine: Cuba.
Second, it is important to place the current, raging debate in
historical context. The actual flow of Mexicans entering the United
States 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 U.S.
legislation on immigration since the 1920s, and the shifts and hypocrisy
involved. 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 United States every year. Instead, they began to settle in
communities farther from the border, increasing the stock of Mexicans in
the United States.
Finally, the efforts of the Mexican and U.S. 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 United States, 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
The electoral numbers perhaps best explain the immigration equation's
importance in the presidential campaign. 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 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.