Feature

Pro-Mexico

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.

By From the June 2009 issue

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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.

Historic Importance

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.

This is most visible in Mexico's northern regions, which have taken to calling themselves el norte, "the north," the popular name for the U.S. This is in part because life around places like Monterrey does approximate what one finds just north of the border. Indeed, anyone traveling within 200 miles or so of that line is likely to see less and less difference between life on the two sides. A plebiscite on the southern side of this band would likely indicate a preference for joining the U.S., while on the northern side the increasing proportion of Mexicans might tip the balance in favor of accepting accession. J. Q. Adams and William Seward would smile.

Three Mexicos

MANY MEXICANS WOULD NOT. Mexico is a big, diverse country whose attitude toward the U.S. is always up for grabs. While millions of humble folk risk life and limb and undergo privation to go north, the country's official high culture, set by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled the country from 1932 to 1998, is deeply anti-gringo. Any number of Mexican politicians try to generate a wave of hate against the USA on which they would ride to power. Attitudes toward Americans are also divided along political and regional lines.

In our time, the country is divided geographically and politically into roughly three parts. The south is predominantly Indian, and its politics are dominated by the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD)—a far-left, Third World, would-be totalitarian outfit that split from the PRI. The central area around Mexico City is still under the old PRI ruling class's sway. Its leaders are "dinosaurs" deeply entrenched in the state bureaucracy and state-connected business, paragons of corruption. Anti-Americanism is part of their DNA. Under PRI rule, the Soviet Union's embassy in Mexico City was its largest anywhere, and the USSR was negotiating the establishment of Soviet consulates in the 10 gateway cities to the U.S. This ominous trend stopped only when the PRI started being challenged by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), especially in the northern state of Nuevo Leon. The pro-U.S. PAN has won the last two presidential elections (the first free ones ever, the last by a squeaker). But its vision of the country is only one among many.

Which vision prevails among Mexicans in the future, what kinds of neighbors we will have south of the border, as well as the character of our Mexican-American relatives on the north side, must depend to some extent on how we Americans handle some of our thorny problems. The beginning of wisdom about this is that they are ours. So far, the U.S. body politic has handled them in a way that seems calculated to turn Mexicans into enemies.

Drugs

THE DRUG TRAFFIC IS A GRIEVIOUS, gratuitous hurt, a deadly injection that the American people are inflicting on Mexico and the rest of Latin America. The $25 billion that honest Mexican workers send home every year fertilize Mexican society's thriftiest, most decent grass roots. But the roughly $50 billion that American college kids, yuppies, and Hollywood types pay to Mexican drug cartels for cocaine, marijuana, and now methamphetamines enable these criminals to corrupt Mexico's police and courts, to blight decency. Increasingly, Mexicans are blaming us for this. Rightly so: U.S. drug laws are the one and only reason why the drug cartels exist. They will continue to thrive, no matter what, so long as these laws do.

We are doubly at fault because we only pretend to outlaw the use of mind-bending drugs. Long ago we stopped penalizing use of marijuana and cocaine. Any college professor who points out to the dean that certain students habitually show up in class stoned is likely to be greeted with a knowing smile. How many parents does anyone know who, upon learning that their children smoked or snorted, turned them over to the police? How many mere users are serving time in the pen as prescribed by law?

We classify drug use by the powerless as a "disease" and send them to "treatment programs" to words that no one takes seriously. By paying them Social Security supplemental income, we also relieve them of the responsibility of supporting themselves. Since money is fungible, Social Security pays for marijuana, cocaine, etc. Thus we enable and reward drug use. Among the powerful, drug use no longer disqualifies anyone for high responsibility. Whereas Bill Clinton mock-denied his drug use by joking that he had not inhaled, Barack Obama simply admitted using cocaine and was not blamed for it. In sum, our real laws support rather than diminish demand for drugs. But our laws also make sure, absolutely sure, that the drugs will flow exclusively through criminal channels. This ensures that drug prices will be high and that they will enrich and empower the scum of the earth. Then we, having coddled demand, empowered and enriched the criminal suppliers, blame Latin American societies for our drug problem. These are the illusions of a self-indulgent people who imagine themselves virtuous and blame others for their own corruption.

Mexico's failure lies in its decision to back up our stupid laws. Its efforts to interfere with the drug trade have boomeranged and must continue to do so. The traffickers hold all the cards. They alone can make "offers you can't refuse." They can say to any policeman, judge, prison official, or bureaucrat on both sides of the border: "This favor we ask of you, maybe just to look the other way, costs you little. Doing it will enrich you. Should you get in trouble for helping us, we can help you. The legal system has many appeals, some staffed by our people. But if you cross us, there are no appeals, just routine beheadings and torture killings. Refuse us, and you die. Your family too."

Neither the Mexican nor the U.S. governments can match the attractiveness of the incentives or the terror of the threats. And if the Mexican government were to try fighting fire with fire, to terrorize the terrorists, the U.S. government would be the first to denounce its "human rights abuses." In Mexico, some unofficial organizations have set about beheading and otherwise brutalizing persons associated with narco gangs. The U.S. government has treated them the same nasty way it treated the Colombian paramilitary organizations that took the starch out of that country's narco-terrorist group, the FARC.

Instead, the U.S. government's recipe is to pay for more police to be corrupted, more intelligence to be infiltrated, more technology to be evaded, more helicopters to fly around impotently, more innocent people to be push around ignorantly, while the narco cartels kill. Essentially, the U.S. government's policy is to let American society finance the drug cartels unofficially, while officially it finances the Mexican government's war against them. We are paying some Mexicans to make war on other Mexicans, principally in the fragile human ecosystem that is the U.S.-Mexico border, where some 6,000 people were killed in the last year. The benchmark of success? The price of cocaine may rise. But when the price rises, our darling college kids and yuppies pay it, and the same amount of deadly money flows south. No wonder that some Latin governments, notably Chile, have refused to cooperate with America's "war on drugs," preferring to give the traffickers free rein in their territory rather than get their police, judiciary, and army polluted to support American hypocrisy and tergiversation.

In short, the drug problem's root is that lots of Americans want drugs, and that the rest of us eschew the reasonable opposites of truly penalizing consumption (à la Singapore) or of total, Darwinian legalization. So long as we keep doing this, we will guarantee to the narcotraffickers effective control of the U.S.-Mexican border and a veto on good relations between the American and Mexican people.

Immigration

U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY has the same disastrous effects on relations among ourselves and our Mexican neighbors and relatives and the same criminal beneficiaries. In the 1970s the U.S. labor movement demanded "border enforcement" in support of its drive to organize farm workers. The Democratic Party backed this, and semi-serious border controls began. Ending the longstanding, informal, easy two-way traffic across the border turned workers into immigrants and created a problem which the right made worse by ignorantly characterizing them as welfare freeloaders.

Men coming north to work started bringing their families along when the 1970s, wave of enforcement made clear that they could no longer go home once the picking season was over, or just to see their families for Christmas and Easter, and easily return. Crossing a guarded border with families required the services of "coyotes," who charged a fee. Thus occasional laborers became migrants, a few of whom, unable to go home when the job ran out and having to support families in high-cost America, when offered public assistance, took it. Voilà, a problem created. In the 1990s the problem got worse when border security increased as part of the "war on drugs," and again after 9/11, just as the burgeoning U.S. economy demanded more labor. As illegal northward crossings became ever more difficult, they required more bribes, more intelligence, more equipment. This put small-time "coyotes" out of business and put crossborder human traffic into the hands of professional border breachers—the same people who do it daily with tons of drugs. They charge some $2,500 per person, make a handsome profit, and have no qualms about leaving human cargos to die in the desert or about holding their passengers for ransom.

All too often, Mexican newspapers and TV carry stories about the tragic fate of young people—often the best in their communities—who had left to find work in el norte and end up dead or in some dehumanized situation. Americans' talk of the need to fence out Mexicans also gets big play in the media. Mexicans cannot help but wonder why we despise them so, and resent it.

Trade

INCREASING THE ECONOMIC INTEGRATION of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico makes even more sense politically than it does economically. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) treaty of 1993 proceeded from this traditional American view. But elements of the American left (because of interest), and of the right (because of ignorance), have managed to addle the treaty's benefits with yet another set of insults to Mexicans.

Beginning in the 1960s Mexico let materials into the country tax free, to be turned into products by Mexican workers in maquilladora factories along the U.S. border, whose products pay lower taxes upon entering the U.S. Under NAFTA the taxes were lowered, and the number of maquilladoras rose to some 4,000, employing more than a million workers and producing almost a third of Mexico's GDP. Ninety percent of the goods are shipped to the U.S. But U.S. labor unions on the left and economic nationalists on the right blamed Mexico for stealing U.S. jobs—as if evil U.S. industrialists or Mexicans or Chinese, rather than the laws of economic comparative advantage, dictate what activities take place where. The Obama administration is unofficially but obviously looking for ways to negate as much of the treaty as it can. But the Clinton and Bush administrations also violated provisions of the treaty, each instance inciting big, emotional headlines in Mexico. None has made bigger headlines than the U.S. barring of Mexican trucks at the behest of the Teamsters' union.

Prior to 1982 Mexican trucks could make deliveries anywhere in the U.S. The Teamsters were the Reagan administration's sole support within the labor movement. To pay them off, the administration restricted Mexican trucks to the border zone, where their cargo must be shifted to U.S. trucks manned by U.S. drivers. As straightforward protectionism, this carried no insult. In 1993 NAFTA abolished that restriction—on paper. But the U.S. government maintains it, now on the insulting pretext that Mexican trucks and drivers are unsafe. In 2007 the Bush administration tried to pacify outraged Mexicans without really displeasing U.S. labor by setting up a small pilot program for Mexican trucks, with the promise that the U.S. would eventually keep its treaty promise. In 2009 the Mexican government got tired of the charade and imposed punitive tariffs on U.S. goods. The economic damage of trade wars is far smaller than adding insult upon insult that Mexicans may reasonably conclude can come only from the gringos' racial contempt.

Fouling Our Own Nest

NOTE WELL, HOWEVER, that current U.S. policies on trade, immigration, and drugs cannot possibly stop or even slow appreciably the integration of the U.S. and Mexico. Much less can they separate the United States' well-being from Mexico's. All they can do is continue to make the two peoples' growing interdependence into a source of trouble for both. These three sets of policies have in common that they cannot achieve their stated ends, and that they tend to make Americans and Mexicans each others' enemies.

Our policy of permitting drug users to pay criminal drug suppliers is literally a supply-side drug policy. It cannot, imaginably, stop or even slow the drug traffic. It can only create, finance, and arm an attack upon our neighbors and set up a war on our border region, a war most certain to produce Mexican-American antagonism. Similarly, our policy of criminalizing the entry of Mexican labor cannot, imaginably, fill the economic needs that Mexican labor fills, or even slow the growth of our Mexican American population. All it can do is embitter the latter. Monkeying with NAFTA on pretend grounds of worry about inferior Mexican standards does the same thing. If any state deserves the label "failed," it is one that recognizes the destructiveness of what it's doing and keeps on doing it.

How Russians or Chinese or Indonesians feel about Americans, or how we feel about them, makes little difference simply because such peoples are neither neighbors nor relatives. But because Mexicans are at once close neighbors and relatives, our sentiments toward them and theirs toward us are of the greatest importance. When we make enemies of Mexicans, we foul our own nest.

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About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.