Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants
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Immigration has always been a touchstone of America’s cultural and ethnic diversity. Indeed, we are a nation of immigrants. As such, we celebrate our nation’s welcoming embrace to those who have sought political, economic and artistic freedom.
It’s no accident that the Statue of Liberty has become an enduring legacy of diversity. The words inscribed on that icon’s base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” inspired immigrants for decades as they sailed past her and on to Ellis Island.
For those who love the ethnic mosaic that immigration has created, the debate in recent years of who we admit, how we admit them, and more importantly, how we treat immigrants has been particularly troublesome.
Now, as the U.S. Presidential Campaign heats up, Immigration Policy – and to be more exact, immigration from Mexico – is becoming a central theme of the debates in both the Republican and Democratic races.
Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants (New Press, Jan. 2008), by Dr. Jorge Castañeda is required reading for anyone wishing to be fully informed and have the essential background necessary to understand the implications of the candidates’ positions on future immigration policy in the United States.
Castañeda, currently a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University, is one of the foremost academic scholars on issues dealing with Latin America. In addition to being a prolific author, he served as Foreign Minister in the Cabinet of President Vicente Fox from 2000 to 2003.
At his book launch in Washington D.C., Castañeda described his experience as Foreign Minister during a period in which he had hoped, given the fact that the new U.S. President, George W. Bush, was from a border state, i.e. Texas; and the new Mexican President, Vicente Fox, was from a sending state, i.e. Guanajuato; that the right climate had been created to conclude a deal on immigration.
In a lively and personal talk, he outlined how the U.S. government is wasting money to build a border fence, money that could have been better spent on economic development, and also about concluding a comprehensive immigration regime that includes as he says, “the whole enchilada.”
He describes himself as a “guest worker” since he teaches part time at New York University (NYU) and spends the rest of the year at his home in Mexico City.
Yes, that part was tongue in cheek, but in Ex Mex, Castañeda presents a brief, but substantive historical journey of U.S. relations with our neighbor to the south, and illuminates the changing immigration policy over the years. In addition, he paints a clear picture of the role Mexicans have played in contributing to America’s economy through regular immigration channels including what have essentially been Guest Worker Programs, and as undocumented workers.
Castañeda’s book takes us from the desert of northern Mexico, where migrants wait for smugglers to transport them across the dangerous U.S. frontier, to the plush corridors of Blair House where we bear witness to conversations between Mexico’s President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush.
What is noteworthy about the book is the rare insight we gain into how U.S. Immigration Policy was crafted in the first term of the Bush Administration. It is interesting to see the willingness of the U.S. Administration to seek a temporary worker program early on, something that was later abandoned for political reasons.
Castañeda provides us with a seat at the table relating first-hand conversations with Colin Powell, Condaleeza Rice, and Bush himself. In the case of Rice that seat is adjacent to hers on a transcontinental flight from Washington to L.A. where broad parameters are set for the U.S. Mexico relationship, much of which was implemented, some of which was not.
As Castañeda points out, on the plus side, agreements on such issues as the U.S. drug enforcement certification process were eliminated. Mexico and the U.S. worked together in forging a framework for international development cooperation, the U.S. and Mexico worked together on the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and restrictions on some of Mexico’s agricultural exports were lifted.
On the minus side, disputes regarding sugar were not resolved, the North American Development Bank established under NAFTA was not re-launched, and assistance from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico never materialized in the same way it had from North to South in Europe. Obviously Immigration Policy also became stalled.
Throughout the book, Powell seems to be the most proactive in wanting to conclude an immigration deal, but political realities and obstacles prove too much even for a former general to overcome. These stories also follow secret negotiations with the United States that often contradict what has been put forth as “official policy.”
In later chapters, Castañeda shatters many myths, clearly demonstrating that while Mexico’s economic push is an important factor in migrants’ decisions to come to the United States, America’s economic pull is just as important, and in many respects comparable to what attracted European immigrants who came in waves at the turn of the previous century and beyond.
The concluding chapter provides a fascinating look at workable solutions going forward. Castañeda points out the need for shared responsibilities from controlling the border to immigration policy. He also looks at the changing demographics in Mexico over the next 15 years that could potentially bring immigration to a trickle.
Castañeda’s book is not a legal treatise on immigration, but rather a first-hand account by Mexico’s foremost Latin America Scholars who, as Mexico’s Foreign Minister, found himself in the unique position of having a hand in attempting to shape immigration policy in what should have been one of the best climates for reform.
But in this compelling book, Castañeda demonstrates how events and politics got in the way. Now, with new leadership in Mexico City and the upcoming elections in the U.S., it seems like another door may open.
As Castaneda says, “Whether or not Mexico participates in the debate, it will be part of the U.S. debate.”
Barry Featherman is the President and CEO of the Inter-American Economic Council. In this capacity Mr. Featherman has collaborated with Government and Business Leaders on fashioning programs to promote development in Latin America. He was instrumental in the establishment of the BiPartisan 30 Member United States House of Representatives Congressional Caribbean Caucus.. In 2005 he served as Director of the Transition Team for the Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States. He serves as a government appointee on the the National Advisory Committee of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Host Committee for the 2008 Board of Governors Meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Advisory Board of the American Jewish Committee Latin America and Latino Institute, the UNESCO Global Leadership Forum Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the United States Virgin Islands Military and Veterans Memorial Complex and the Trade Advisory Board of the Canadian Foundation of the Americas (FOCAL). Mr. Featherman is a Phi Beta Kappa Graduate of Temple University, he earned his law degree from American University, and has a Masters degree in Inter-American Law from the University of Miami. He is fluent in Spanish. He is active with numerous civic, political and charitable organizations.