Monday, May 17, 2010

Smoke and mirrors in mindfields along the U.S.-Mexico border

This post means veering onto a side-track. But the news out of Arizona, riled-up reactions here in California, and talks I heard broadcast from a conference on U.S-Mexico relations at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington prompt me to trot out an old bit of analysis and try it out again:

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Try to figure out who is complaining about what here: “There are too many of them. They are taking jobs and opportunities away from us. They are distorting our economy, straining our infrastructure. They remit most of their earnings back to their own homeland, instead of keeping money here. They live in enclaves. We should not have to depend on them. We can do it by ourselves.”

“They” are Mexican immigrants, right? Nope; not exactly.

Try again, after hearing more complaints: “Their influx is tantamount to an invasion. It violates our sovereignty, jeopardizes our security. It’s bad for our national dignity and identity. It contaminates our culture. It breeds corruption even crime. It limits our independence and autonomy. We’ve lost control of our borders. There ought to be a law.”

What can it be, if not Mexican immigration?

Actually, it’s how U.S. investors and marketers were viewed in Mexico not long ago, especially during the mid 20th century. Curiously, the criticisms Americans still have about Mexican immigration are virtually identical — in point by point parallels — to the criticisms that Mexicans used to have about American corporate investment in Mexico.

Positive views exist as well, often backed by research. Accordingly, U.S. investment — or Mexican immigration — has created new jobs, businesses, and markets, to the benefit of both nations’ economies. It’s been a necessary factor of production. The receiving country’s economy would suffer setbacks without it, as would the sending country’s.

But whenever a xenophobic kind of nationalism — a demonizing, polarizing kind of tribalism — takes hold, it becomes difficult to claim that the benefits exceed the costs in either issue area, in either country, even though professional research shows otherwise. Mexican criticisms of U.S. investment were often heated in the 1970s-1980s, before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994. American criticisms of Mexican immigration are newly aflame today, notably in Arizona.

In brief, a reverse mirroring has often cut across nationalist mindsets in the two countries. Many Americans have thought that Mexican immigration is mostly bad for the United States, but U.S. investment is surely good for Mexico. Many Mexicans have thought the reverse: U.S. investment has bad effects in Mexico, but Mexican immigration mostly benefits the United States. What a twist.

It is understandable that large stocks and flows of any kind from any nation make people uneasy, leading to nationalistic reactions. This is so whether the issues involve poor Mexican workers or rich American corporations — or, as in Canada, intellectual properties like American films and TV shows.

It is also true that comparing mindsets this way cannot, by itself, lead to specific measures for resolving problems in an issue area. But a good look at this reverse mirroring does imply some principles:
  • First, acknowledge the twist in logics: If we are so sure of our complaints about Mexican immigration, then shouldn’t we see some truth in Mexican complaints about American investment?
  • Develop a mutual logic: The two flows may be equally good or bad for both countries. As our socio-economic interconnections deepen, harmonized views will be needed about both (all?) kinds of stocks and flows, in both Mexico and the United States.
  • Try to be guided by a strategic moral precept: Don’t do to Mexican immigrants here what you wouldn’t want Mexico to do to American investors and marketers there. And vice-versa for Mexico. In other words, be neighborly, not narcissistic — behave in terms of “Do unto others . . .” instead of “Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .”
With this in mind, and taking cues from past experiences — like the 1986 U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and Mexico’s analogous 1973 Law to Promote Mexican Investment and Regulate Foreign Investment (LIME) — a few simple policy principles seem to make sense because they suit both issue areas:
  • Emphasize regulation over restriction. Focus on legalization, not criminalization. Prioritize the kinds of immigrants (or investors) that are best for one’s country; limit other kinds. Do improve licensing, increase inspections, sanction violators, combat smuggling, and tighten border controls. But don’t provoke labor (or capital) flight.
  • Develop “guest” programs. We’ve done that before with Mexican workers. Mexico has had an equivalent in the system of U.S. and other foreign-owned assembly plants (maquiladoras) along its border with our country. A by-gone Mexican law allowing U.S investment if it had Mexican partners who owned 51% treated the 49% U.S. portion as a kind of houseguest.
  • Avoid unilateral moves that incite a backlash from the other side. For immigration, this means no mass deportations, economic boycotts, or border-long walls. In this vein, it is also wrong for Mexican workers up here to tout Mexican flags at public demonstrations, presuming they would not want to see U.S. businessmen brandishing American flags in Mexico.
Aren’t these the kinds of pragmatic measures that a bilateral logic implies (trilateral, if Canada is included)? Wouldn’t mutual thinking like this be preferable to unilateralism?

I’d still like to think so. But conditions have changed since I tried suggesting this conceptual optic for strategizing many years ago (see sources below).

One change is that the two issue areas don’t actively mirror each other as they used to. U.S. investment is no longer a hot-button issue in Mexico. Mexicans have accommodated to it; the stocks and flows aren’t thought to be growing at alarming, disproportionate rates anymore. Not so, Mexican immigration up here; it remains a polarizing hot-button issue, especially since our nation’s economic downturn has aroused a nativist populism.

Another change is that security concerns now trump socio-economic issues more than ever. Drugs flowing North and weapons South have become the new “mirrors” — Americans fret about the former but not the latter, and vice-versa for Mexicans. Meanwhile, high levels of crime, corruption, and violence in Mexico — indeed, on both sides of the border — make it difficult to presume getting far with an optic like I’ve proposed above.

Nonetheless, some variant of my optic may yet come back into play. U.S.-Mexico relations are in need of a “reset” (Jorge Castañeda’s term) across a broad range of issues. Better yet might be a “strategic partnership” that fosters “North American competitivenes” — to use terms I keep hearing more often. (I even have a name to suggest that should resonate on both sides of the border: Plan Dos Aguilas / “The Two Eagles Plan”.) Adjusting our mirrors could play a useful role in helping us see ahead more clearly in these directions, together.

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Mexican Immigration, U.S. Investment, and U.S.-Mexican Relations (1990)

U.S. Immigration Policy and Global Interdependence (1982)

Also see my previous blogposts on Mexico (e.g., here).