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Are Mexico’s Actions as Loud as Trump’s Words?

Rethinking bilateral cooperation on migration

At the center of the battle for the Republican nomination is the Donald Trump phenomenon and the implausible advantage he carries in the polls despite the discriminatory, misinformed, insulting statements that have always marked his style — only now he launches them from the platform of a possible United States president, showing callous disregard. “We don’t have time for tone,” said Trump, when Jeb Bush called his statements divisive to the party and to society in the first Republican debate.

One such infamous statement is Trump’s claim that Mexico sends “rapists [and] drug-dealers across the border.” As with many of his misguided comments, Trump has been unable to produce evidence to verify that Mexico is in fact “sending” criminals to the United States. Tasteless though his comments might be, he has foregrounded a fundamental point that no other candidate has: there can be no talk of immigration in the United States without discussing the role of Mexico.

Trump maintains that it is the responsibility of Mexico – the primary country of origin of the more than 41 million immigrants that live in this country – to pay for the construction of a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States (though he would still be proud for it to be called “ The Trump Wall”). Trump talks about the wall as if it were an innovative idea, and as if sheets of steel, double and triple bars, and other barbed wires and posts haven’t been multiplying since 1993 in the territory that divides both countries. What’s more, he does so with no mention of how the cost of this infrastructure is also measured in the hundreds of people that die each year attempting to cross the border (see De León, 2015 for an excellent account of this situation). Throughout his campaign as a candidate for the Republican nomination, he has been massaging his position, most notably to allow that the wall would have a big beautiful door to permit entry to so-called desirable immigrants. But he always adds that the Mexican government should have to finance the construction of this wall. The “how” is not discussed, nor the “why.” It is in these omissions that we find clues to rethink bilateral cooperation on migration.

The suggestion that migrants’ countries of origin should assume a portion of the costs that their residence imposes on another country is not a farfetched proposal, but it is necessary to rethink it beyond the logic of migration controls. The substantive matter behind Trump’s vapid attacks concerns the distribution of the costs and benefits of migration between states of origin and states of destination. If there are costs for the destination country (the use, for instance, of public services such as education and healthcare) is it the responsibility of the country of origin to absorb a portion of these costs? On the other hand, if the country of origin invested in the education and health of citizens who now contribute to the economic development of another country, should there exist a tax that flows back to the country of origin, as economist Jagdish Bhagwati has suggested?

Mexico has stayed on the margins of the discussion about Trump’s statements, and any responses have focused on the racist and discriminatory nature of his commentary. In the meanwhile, the Mexican government has missed a crucial opportunity to offer a substantive response, one that discusses the strategy that sits at the center of Mexican foreign policy and directly undermines the kinds of comments Trump now stands for but are hardly new, as they have for decades comprised the anti-immigrant – and specifically anti-Mexican – discourse (see Foley, 2015 for a historical account).

After the failure of the proposed US-Mexico bilateral immigration agreement of 2001, Mexico has worked discreetly – “below the radar,” says Arturo Sarukhan , the former Ambassador of Mexico in Washington – to establish the foundations for immigration reform and to promote immigrant rights. This work, which consists of lobbying and collaboration with different players in local, state, and federal sectors, has two principle objectives: 1) to support laws and policies that uphold the human rights of immigrants; 2) to create programs that support the full integration and participation of immigrants and their families within the host society. It is the latter objective that leads naturally to a debate about the distribution of costs and benefits, and to the possibility of rethinking bilateral cooperation or shared responsibility on migration.

Since the 1990s, and especially in the last fifteen years, Mexico has invested an enormous amount of human and material resources in the development of programming around health, education, finance, and civic participation, in the effort to respond to specific challenges facing the Mexican (and Latino) population in the United States: lower levels of education and higher drop-out rates; higher rates of obesity and diabetes, with millions of Mexicans without health insurance; large portions of unbanked immigrant populations; and the fact that 2.7 million Mexicans comprise the largest group of immigrants that are eligible to become citizens but have not applied for naturalization.

These problems have been tackled through the development of adult education programs sponsored by the Mexican Secretary of Education (including literacy programs, GED training and English classes), which operate in over 300 public schools and community centers around the U.S., as well as through IME (Institute for Mexicans Abroad) scholarships, to assist undocumented youth in completing university studies. The Ventanillas de Salud (Health Windows) offer glucose tests, HIV tests, and medical referrals within the 50 Mexican consular offices in the United States, while health information fairs sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of Health (in collaboration with clinics, hospitals, and consulates of other countries) are also held in public parks, churches, community organizations and schools. Through alliances with banks, universities, nonprofit organizations, federal, state and local government agencies, Mexican consulates also offer seminars on savings, mortgages and tax payment, as well as seminars and workshops focused on developing networks between community leaders, promoting labor rights and, most recently, encouraging naturalization for those who are eligible .

All of these programs are considered models by other countries and are fully supported by authorities in the United States who participate in them, including the Department of Labor or Citizenship and Immigration Services, for example.

These services clearly help millions of Mexicans (and other Spanish speaking migrants who are also welcomed at Mexican consular offices) for whom it would be difficult to obtain this information or support in other ways– due to cultural or language barriers, or fear that their migration status would put them at risk if they attempted to access these types of services. Beyond the direct support for immigrant communities, through these programs the Mexican government is also attempting to change the stereotypical image of Mexico and Mexicans in the eyes of the US general public. This whole strategy serves to contradict those who, like Trump, assert that Mexico does nothing more than send their “undesirables” to the other side.

At the root of Trump’s arguments, and many others who have made similar claims in the past (i.e. Huntington’s “The Hispanic Challenge”, 2004) is ignorance and fear that immigrants do not want to or will not be able to integrate into United States society: that they don’t speak English, that they represent the worst of their culture, that they are a threat to security, and that they don’t believe in democratic values. The Mexican government has been strategic in its choice to articulate its policies toward emigrants in the US in the same terms in which the issue is often framed in the US: as a matter of integration and inclusion. This choice has paved the way for an extensive collaboration between governments, civil society, and businesses that actively support these efforts because they see the partnerships with Mexican consulates as an opportunity to reach and provide support to groups of immigrants they would normally not have access to. Still, the Mexican government continues to miss opportunities — like those that Trump brings to the fore — to publicize the considerable results such work has garnered, with over one million people gaining access to health services each year at the consulates’Ventanillas de Salud and tens of thousands receiving scholarships and educational programs through IME Becas and Plazas Comunitarias, for example. Consequently, they miss critical opportunities to transform the discourse that is recycled during every electoral period and that has long served as a real obstacle to achieving the kind of immigration reform that would provide the necessary conditions to respect the rights of Mexicans and Latinos living in the United States.

Adapted from article first published in Letras Libres, November 2015. Translated from Spanish by Ali Shames-Dawson. 

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