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U.S. policy toward our southern relative and neighbor is deeply flawed — and the small-minded right has been no more enlightened. Our June cover story.
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, whether anybody likes it or not, the United States and Mexico are joined at the Rio Grande until the stars fall from the sky. What Geography hath joined together, let no man even think of putting asunder. There is no comparison between living alongside neighbors and relatives who are friendly and helpful, and by folks who are troubled or who wish us ill. Canada’s position is analogous. But whereas Canada’s aging 30 million are comfortable in their identity, the national identity of Mexico’s 110 million largely young and vigorous people is up for grabs.
No foreign event will so influence our peace, prosperity, and happiness as will the development of our relationship with the Mexican people. So, self-interest as well as the Golden Rule command us to love Mexicans as we love ourselves.
AMERICA’S MOST THOUGHTFUL STATESMEN early recognized the importance of a friendly Mexico. The Founder’s conception of how America fits with the rest of the world, crystallized in John Quincy Adams’s Monroe Doctrine, boils down to this: Events beyond the oceans concern us as “interested spectators.” Our interest in sharing the oceans, “the common possession of mankind,” is equal to that of others, but it increases as the distance to the United States decreases. As for countries in the northern and southern American continents, “All questions of policy relating to them have a bearing so direct upon the rights and interests of the United States that they cannot be left at the disposal of European powers….” In short, what is nearest is dearest. Adams thought that cultural, economic, and demographic factors would lead our neighbors to gravitate toward us, bit by bit. As President J. Q. Adams’s secretary of state, Henry Clay, instructed our first envoy to Mexico, we should help that natural process by leaving Mexicans alone politically while developing mutually beneficial relationships with them.
It is easy enough to imagine that natural factors would have resulted in the area between the Rio Grande and Oregon, once Mexico’s northwest, looking as it did in 1900 even without the 1836 battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto or Polk’s war of 1846– 48. The U.S. government did not take Texas from Mexico. No one should have been surprised that the Americans whom Mexico invited to fill its nearly empty Tejas province insisted on ruling themselves as they saw fit. And while there is no doubt that President Polk made war on Mexico to conquer the area between Texas and the Pacific, it is just as clear that Mexico had refused to live in peace with the U.S. and was unable to populate a vast wilderness or to keep swarms of Americans from walking into it with their own more vigorous way of life. Twenty-first-century Americans would be well advised to keep in mind that the peaceful underlying mechanisms that ensured that this area would be Anglo are now working in the other direction, seemingly just as inexorably.
William Seward, secretary of state from 1861 to 1869, was heir to John Quincy Adams’s quest for peaceful hemispheric expansion. He expected that parts of Canada and Mexico would grow to be so similar to America that they would seek to join us. His most memorable diplomatic work was pressuring France to end its 1863–1867 intervention in Mexico.
As Americans were volunteering for an expedition to force France out, Seward told Napoleon III with increasing urgency that his attempt to counter the Mexican people’s republican and American sentiments was doomed. Thus Seward salved to some extent the wounds of 1848. Mexico was the abiding diplomatic concern of James G. Blaine, who was to Seward what Seward had been to John Quincy Adams. Baine served as secretary of state to Presidents Garfield and Harrison and personified the Republican Party for a quarter-century. Blaine hoped that progress in Mexico, then under the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, would mean de facto accession, and feared that war or revolution there would spill into the U.S.
When Mexico’s 1910 revolution did spill into the U.S., Woodrow Wilson departed from historic pattern by trying to impose his view of a proper outcome. Bungling that, Wilson so alienated Mexicans that in 1917 Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, had reason to believe Mexico would be receptive to an offer of alliance against the United States. Discovery of that offer—and of the possibility that the Mexican border might become hostile—united American public opinion behind entry into World War I, surely one of history’s greatest disasters.
Two Bodies Commingled
IN THE NEAR-CENTURY SINCE, American statesmen enthralled by prospects of recreating faraway places in their own image relegated Mexico to the back burner, imagining it as a bunch of peasants taking siestas under sombreros. This was just as Mexico’s integration into American life gathered speed. Between 1910 and 1932 some 900,000 Mexicans fled their revolution, swelling the previously tiny ethnic enclaves from California to Texas. More migrated north seasonally, to work harvests and send money home.
During World War II the U.S. government invited millions of Mexican braceros to replace GIs on farms and in factories. Some stayed to feed the growing American economy. But the traffic across the border remained almost evenly balanced in both directions. Mexicans would come and go to work in the U.S., typically returning home. That is why, by 1990, only some 2 percent of the U.S. population was Mexican-born. This changed rapidly. By 2008 12 million native Mexicans lived in the U.S. Together with 13 million persons of Mexican origin, Mexicans made up 9 percent of the U.S. population. By 2050, about one in five Americans will be Mexican or of Mexican ancestry.
In sum, our Mexican neighbors are also part of us. They are unique among America’s constituent ethnic groups in being numerous neighbors as well as relatives. There is nothing optional about this. The only question is whether our familial relationship will be functional or dysfunctional.
The relationship’s economic fundamentals are sound. Mexico’s status as our third-largest trade partner (after Canada and China, ahead of Japan and Germany) is the least of the story. Mainly, Mexicans are adding to the U.S. economy in quantity and quality some of the essential elements that changes in the native population (for better or worse) are subtracting from it. In a nutshell: the native U.S. population is getting older, and smaller numbers of young people are inclined to work with their hands.
Whereas in 2008 41 percent of Americans were of working age, only 28 percent will be by 2050. But three-quarters of Mexican arrivals are of working age. They come physically and mentally ready for manual labor on farms, in construction, tire shops, hotels, and nursing homes, in the meat industry or in maintenance—the 42.7 percent of job openings that the U.S. Labor Department classifies as requiring only “short-term on-the-job training,” the ones for which native-born Americans show less and less interest or aptitude. By the same token, American young people’s avoidance of serious science and math means that if we are to have scientists and doctors, they will have to come from India or China. It should go without saying that whatever hope Americans so aging and so inclined have of sustaining any Social Security or Medicare system rests on an abundant supply of eager, industrious, friendly immigrants. Some economists have predicted that 10 years from now the U.S. government will have to open labor-recruiting offices in Mexico.
Mexico is no less dependent on the American people as friendly neighbors. At any given moment in 2009 one of every seven Mexicans who is performing useful labor is doing so in the USA, being paid better than he would be in Mexico. The money he sends home builds the country’s human capital. While the availability of emigration has taken some pressure off Mexico’s government to provide opportunities for its people at home, millions of Mexicans’ experience of a better, fairer life in the U.S. has set a standard that Mexican governments have never been able to evade. For millions of ordinary Mexicans, a certain idealized image of America is the measure of things as they should be. This is as excellent for America as it is for Mexico.
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