Building Walls, Closing the Border: Not the Answer

By Ernesto Castañeda with Maura Fennelly*

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

Trump is widely thought to have originated the call for a wall to keep out migrants, but animosity toward Latin Americans has deep roots in U.S. history and political discourse – and the tough task of reversing it is long overdue. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush criminalized migration and secured funds to build fences and militarize the border. President Obama also oversaw the deportation of over 2 million migrants, some of whom ended up in camps on military bases.

Immigration remains one of the most debated issues, and immigration policies have a profound impact on families and communities with foreign-born members. Many long-time residents and some politicians see immigration as a cultural threat and are opposed to it. In Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States, we trace the building of symbolic and physical walls between white Americans and Latin people. Boundary formation occurs at three levels:

  • Categorical thinking. The modern nation-state rests on the assumption that exclusion is necessary to protect the welfare of citizens. Migrants can be viewed as a threat to the autonomy of the nation. Immigrants can be “naturalized” and offered full citizen rights, but this assumes that they must change to fit in. One of the main narratives driving strict border surveillance is that migrants will negatively affect the economy, despite research continuing to show that long-term employment rates of American citizens’ are not harmed by immigration. Low-skilled wages are barely affected by immigrants entering the American workforce.
  • Anti-immigrant speech. Minority populations, including immigrants, have been subject to an increase in hate crimes since the 2016 election. White Nationalist groups use social media and the public sphere to disseminate anti-immigrant views. Members of a splinter militia group – the Minutemen American Defense – killed nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in 2009 (and were convicted in 2011). The Minutemen, while declining in membership, have inspired the creation of smaller border patrol groups.
  • Immigration as an experience. Despite some political leaders’ claims of insecurity at the border, U.S. cities right next to Mexico are safe. Research shows that most border-area residents enjoy being next to Mexico. Across the nation, moreover, a vast majority – about 75 percent – believe that immigration is good for the United States. Nonetheless, Latin American migrants still struggle to find a home and a sense of belonging. In interviews, we find that many experience “social invisibility” – a feeling of existing in significant numbers while being unrecognized as full members. Interviews with undocumented migrants we conducted in El Paso reveal that over 75 percent reported that employers, landlords, and neighbors threatened to use their undocumented status against them. These experiences affect migrants’ well-being and mental health.

While the United States maintains durable inequalities between white Americans, Latin people, and other marginalized groups, the historical and social forces shaping our immigration narrative can be changed so that we empathize with, and no longer demonize, people who are looking for a home. Trump’s efforts to expand existing walls and build new ones are central to his strategy. He led the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and declared a national emergency because Congress would not fund it as he wished. However, his threats to close the border, impose tariffs, and other drastic actions show ignorance of the major impact these actions would have on the United States’ access to inexpensive agricultural, industrial, and technological products from Mexico. A border closure would not be sustainable beyond a few days. While polls show that 41 percent of people in the United States support the construction of Trump’s border wall, a majority of Americans know that more walls would not work.

  • The United States does not need a border wall with Mexico. The misleading and inaccurate claims made by politicians about Latin immigrants only further divide the nation – and obscure the positive contribution of Latin Americans, their experiences, identities, and cultures.

July 2, 2019

Ernesto Castañeda teaches sociology at American University and is the author of Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States. Maura Fennelly is a graduate from American University and works with a housing assistance organization in Chicago.

President Obama’s Visit to Buenos Aires: An Important Gesture

By Katherine Hite*

Parque de la memoria Argentina

Parque de la Memoria, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jennifer Yin / Flickr / Creative Commons

While most eyes are on U.S. President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the timing and agenda of his follow-on travel to Argentina – while controversial – also is a significant opportunity for the United States to burnish its image in Latin America.  Obama arrives in Buenos Aires on the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup d’etat, marking a brutal period of systematic human rights violations in which the United States lent tacit support.  In an important attempt to ameliorate the controversy over his timing, Obama will be delivering a cache of declassified documents on both what the U.S. knew regarding the 1976-1983 repression and on the green light that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the dictatorship’s dirty war against political opponents during the final year of the Ford presidency.  In addition, the President will visit the Parque de la Memoria, site of a memorial to the thousands of victims of the military regime.  He’d expressed interest in a visit to the ex-Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), notorious former clandestine detention site where an estimated 5,000 Argentines were imprisoned, 90 percent of whom were murdered, but political sensitivities in Buenos Aires precluded it.

Argentina has pioneered efforts to come to terms with the past, from prosecuting and jailing former military officers guilty of violations, to “recuperating” former clandestine detention centers, where citizens were tortured, executed, and made to “disappear.”  Human rights activists have converted several of these former centers, such as the ex-ESMA, into spaces to remember and to educate the public with a message of accountability and of “never again.”  Some memory sites also seek to connect human rights violations of the past to ongoing violations, including police brutality and the abuse of the incarcerated, as well as to present-day struggles for social justice.  Argentine school children learn about their past and study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an important moment for the U.S. president publicly to recognize the U.S. historic role in Argentina’s tragic past – and for Argentines to show Washington, itself accused of torture and clandestine detention in recent years within its “War on Terror,” that such abuses can never be tolerated and that perpetrators must be brought to justice for a democracy to be healthy and stable.  Countries throughout the region, including Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have similarly created memorials and museums of memory.  Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights gets over 10,000 visitors a month.  It houses a large permanent display documenting the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and like the ex-ESMA, opens its spaces to human rights organizations, artists, theater groups, and others for workshops, plays, movie series, and more.  In El Salvador, the Museum of the Word and the Image sponsors an exhibit on the roots of the country’s civil war as well as memories of the suffering and resistance.  It has also sponsored exhibits on Salvadoran migration to the United States during the war and connects past to current violence, both within El Salvador and in close relation to the United States.  Together these efforts invite acknowledgment, reflection, and dialogue.  President Obama’s activities in Argentina, like President Clinton’s apology in Guatemala for the U.S. role in past violations in that country, are an important gesture that, within a broader U.S. commitment, could help facilitate a less tarnished image for Washington in Latin America along with his historic shift in policy toward Cuba.

March 21, 2016

* Katherine Hite is professor of political science at Vassar, with special interest in Latin American politics, social movements, and the legacies of violence for governments and societies throughout the Americas.

Mexico and NAFTA: Lessons Learned?

By Robert A. Blecker*

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, it is clear that the promises made by Mexican President Carlos Salinas and U.S. President Bill Clinton – that the accord would make Mexico “a first-world country” and halt the migration of Mexican workers to the United States – have not been fulfilled.  In Salinas’s famous words, Mexico would “export goods, not people.”  But the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States rose by a conservatively estimated 3 to 4 million during the first two decades of NAFTA, and millions more were apprehended at the border and deported.  The reasons why immigration flows accelerated post-NAFTA are not hard to discern.

  • NAFTA fostered integration of Mexican industries into global supply chains targeted at the U.S. market, accelerating Mexico’s transformation into a major exporter of manufactured goods.  Nearly one million manufacturing jobs were created there in the first seven years of NAFTA (1994-2000).  But this job growth was offset by similar job losses in agriculture, and manufacturing employment has fallen by about a half million since 2001.  The net increase in manufacturing employment from 1993 to 2013 was only about 400,000, less than half of the annual growth in the Mexican labor force.
  • Real hourly earnings in Mexican manufacturing were no higher in 2013 than in 1994, and Mexico’s per capita income has stagnated relative to that of the United States.  In 2012, typical Mexican manufacturing workers received only 16 percent as much per hour as their U.S. counterparts, down from 18 percent in 1994.  Even adjusted for the lower cost of living, workers without a college degree in Mexico still earn only about one-quarter to one-third of what they can earn by moving to the United States.

The benefits of NAFTA for Mexico have been attenuated by several factors.  First, Mexican export industries still largely follow the maquiladora model of doing assembly work using imported inputs, so their value-added is only a fraction of the gross value of their exports and they have few “backward linkages” to the domestic economy.  Second, the Mexican government has frequently allowed the peso to become overvalued, making Mexico less competitive and driving multinational firms to locate in other countries.  Third, the tremendous penetration of Chinese imports into all of North America (Canada, Mexico and U.S.), especially since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, has displaced significant amounts of actual or potential Mexican exports.  A revaluation of China’s currency, rising Chinese wages and increasing global transportation costs have recently led to some “reshoring” of manufacturing to Mexico, but employment in Mexican export industries has grown only modestly as a result.

The increased integration of North American industries through NAFTA has proved to be a mixed blessing for Mexico.  U.S. booms have helped Mexico grow, but only for temporary periods, and being dependent on the U.S. market has held Mexico back since the U.S. financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the ensuing “Great Recession” and sluggish recovery.  Of course, NAFTA is but one of Mexico’s constraints.  The country’s restrictive monetary and fiscal policies, frequent currency overvaluation, monopolization of key domestic markets and inadequate investments in physical and human capital have also held it back.  The Mexican economy still suffers from a profound dualism, in which only about one-fifth of all non-agricultural, private-sector workers are employed in large, highly productive firms, while the vast majority are employed in small- or medium-sized enterprises with low, stagnant or even falling productivity.  Mexico’s experience under NAFTA certainly argues against portrayals of international trade agreements, such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, as panaceas for the economic ills of Mexico or any other country.  Whatever one thinks of the “reform” agenda of President Enrique Peña Nieto – which is focused on areas such as energy, education, and telecommunications – these reforms are unlikely to help Mexico break out of its slow growth trap if the foundations of the country’s trade and macroeconomic policies remain untouched.

*Dr. Blecker is a professor of economics at American University.

The Newtown Massacre: Another Lost Opportunity

Guns for sale at Dick's Sporting Goods store | by: Svadilfari | Flickr | Creative Commons

Guns for sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods store | by: Svadilfari | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin Americans clearly are not holding their breath waiting for the United States to translate shock into action in the wake of the killing of 20 first-graders and six teachers at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, two months ago. In December and January, media such as El Espectador (Uruguay), La República (Peru), and El Universal (Mexico) reported that the easy access to firearms and lax gun controls were factors in the massacre.  While making note of President Obama’s pledge to reduce gun violence, including proposals he is sending to the U.S. Congress, few if any commentators in the region expressed confidence that the legislature, many of whose members are beholden to the National Rifle Association, will do anything.

Instead, Latin American media – presumably reflecting the values of their societies – point out the irony that, while the United States mourned the senseless loss of its children and politicians made emotional speeches, gun killings continue unabated.  They gave prominent coverage last week to an analysis by the on-line U.S. magazine Slate, documenting that 1,774 Americans – including 31 children, 101 adolescents, and 283 women – have been killed in the two months after Newtown.  The Excelsior of Mexico quoted U.S. political commentator Mark Shields as saying that since Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 “more Americans have died from gunfire than died in all the wars of [U.S.] history.”

As the largest source of illegal weapons to Mexico, Central America and perhaps the rest of Latin America, the United States’ inability to control its own violence has a direct bearing on the region.  Rather than clamor for action as they would in the past, Latin American opinion-makers appear resigned to U.S. inaction – and puzzled at how a single lobby can prevail on an issue as sensitive as the safety of schoolchildren.  The dismay will only be fueled by reports by The Christian Science Monitor and other prestigious U.S. media this week that the “assault weapons ban” under consideration in Washington would exempt more than 2,200 specific firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle that is nearly identical to one of the guns used in the bloodiest shootout in FBI history. A retired FBI agent called the proposal “a joke,” and so will many Latin Americans.  As recently as 2010, Latin American governments called on Washington to ratify the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (called CIFTA) – signed by the Clinton Administration in 1997 – but it is clearly a bridge too far now.