Mexico: Migrants Getting Political but Not Driving Reform

By Michael S. Danielson*

A large group of people gathers in an airport.

Returning Mexican migrants are greeted upon their arrival in Mexico by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexican migrants who currently live in the United States or have returned home after spending many years abroad have become an important social and political constituency in the Mexican polity, but they do not uniformly enhance local democracy.  A growing body of research indicates that migrants affect the politics of their home towns and home countries through both direct and indirect channels.  Their departure releases pressure on prevailing authorities to reform, and the prospect of future migration causes citizens to disengage from the political process.  Friendships, alliances, and other contacts allow migrants to become intimately involved in their home communities from abroad as they communicate their attitudes and ideologies among themselves and friends and relatives back home.  Returning home with accumulated social, political, and economic capital also enables them to become influential leaders there.

  • Analysis of the municipalities to which U.S.-based migrants provide financial support, for example, shows that migrants are more likely to contribute where migrant civil society has become more deeply institutionalized at the state level and in municipalities and states with longer histories of migration.
  • A survey of more than 400 mayors in Oaxaca shows that migrants returning to their home communities who become mayors are more likely to be members of the popular classes than their non-migrant counterparts, suggesting that migration might be a pathway to power for non-elite individuals. But the same data also show that migrant mayors are just as likely to align with dominant political groups as with opponents of the status quo, suggesting the limits of their transformative and democratizing potential.

Field research shows different outcomes in different states.  In Oaxaca – where the exclusion of migrants from influence has alienated them from the governing party (an attitude further fueled by their experiences of exploitation and resistance as migrants in Mexico and California) – returnees tend to enter the political fray in opposition to dominant powers.  In contrast, the returning migrants who have been most influential in the states of Guanajuato and Zacatecas have tended to be mobilized by and act in support of the dominant parties in their states.  The institutionalization of the state-migrant relationship in these states facilitates migrant social and political engagement with governing parties.

  • Ethnographic data in 12 high-migration municipalities in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas indicate, moreover, that the political engagement of returning migrants resulted in increased political competition that, in all but one case, caused factionalism and a divided opposition at best and deep, violent social conflict at worst. In the remaining six municipalities, dominant political actors either incorporated migrants into the prevailing system by establishing neocorporatist equilibria or successfully blocked the influence of migrant actors all together, despite high levels of migration.

Returning migrants’ political influence will only increase.  The historic flow – some 16 million Mexicans entered the United States in the 50 years since 1965 – has been reversed, as more migrants are returning to Mexico than entering the United States.  The economic, social, cultural, and political ties forged between communities on both sides of the border are growing, and the futures of the two countries are more intertwined than ever.  The economic and social importance of migration in some municipalities helps migrant political actors gain influence back home, and it can open up a pathway to local power for historically excluded social groups, even if – as in the cases that I have examinedthis influence has only rarely translated into fundamental changes in the way that politics are done.  The engagement of millions of Mexican migrants in their home towns has not resulted in thousands of political earthquakes, but rather the Mexican political system is incorporating these new actors without instituting fundamental changes to the way that politics are done.

 January 4, 2018

*Michael S. Danielson is CLALS Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington DC Program.  His new book, Emigrants Get Political: Mexican Migrants Engage Their Home Towns, was published by Oxford University Press.  He has also participated in CLALS’ North America Research Initiative as a Pastor Scholar.

Trump’s Wall Funding Proposal Violates Conservative Principles

By Ezra Rosser*

A large border fence and the blue sky as seen from a street in California

A portion of the existing border fence between Mexico and the United States in California. / Rey Perezoso / Flickr / Creative Commons

More than two years after U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump first boasted that he would “build a great, great wall on our southern border and … make Mexico pay for that wall,” his main proposal to fund it appears to remain blocking transnational remittances  – in contradiction of neoliberal capitalist principles he embraces.  In a letter that now-President Trump sent last month to U.S. House and Senate Leaders he said the border wall was necessary to protect “our national security and public safety” because the “porous southern border … is exploited by drug traffickers and criminal cartels.”  He was ambiguous, however, about who was going to pay for the wall, simply arguing that the country must “ensure funding for the southern border wall and associated infrastructure.”  Trump offered to make a deal to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – the “Dreamers” – only if Congress passed harsh immigration policies and funded the wall.

  • Under pressure during the campaign to explain how he would make Mexico pay for the wall, Trump claimed he could hold remittances sent by Mexican immigrants to family members in Mexico hostage until Mexico agreed to pay. President Obama noted at the time that the implications of ending immigrant remittances would be “enormous,” difficult to implement, and likely push more people to leave Mexico for the United States.  Senders would likely resort to informal channels, and Trump’s proposed selective taxation of money sent to Mexico would raise legal issues because of the discriminatory nature of such a program.
  • Trump has been quietly backing away from his repeated campaign promise to make Mexico pay. When Mexican President Peña Nieto told him in a phone call last January that “my position has been and will continue to be very firm saying that Mexico cannot pay for that wall,” Trump responded with much less bluster.  He noted simply that “you cannot say that to the press.  The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”  This acknowledgement that the issue was largely about political optics suggested that Trump knew that, in the memorable words of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Mexico was “not going to pay for that f***ing wall.”

Trump has not withdrawn, however, his threat to block remittances.  Such a policy would cause hardship for millions; most remittances are spent on basic necessities such as food.  But by undermining the free flow of capital, a core feature of our modern globalized world, Trump is also attacking a central component of neoliberal capitalism.  Trump also takes positions that reflect anti-globalization and protectionism – such as his characterization of NAFTA as the “the worst trade deal ever signed in the history of our country” and his claim that globalization “left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache” – but tying capital flows with labor flows would arguably turn the values of the global order on their head.

  • The notion that there is an imbalance in the treatment of workers and capital is ordinarily associated with the radical left. Harvard Law Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, for example, highlighted this imbalance in his 1998 book, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative, in which he wrote, “The architects of the new world economic order have built a system in which capital and goods can roam the world while labor remains imprisoned in the nation-state or in blocs of relatively homogeneous nation-states.”  For Trump and other Republicans, linking remittances and immigration would normally be anathema.  If the U.S. Congress decides not to fund the wall, we may discover that taxing cash transfers may be an autocratic strategy that crosses ideological lines.

 November 27, 2017

* Ezra Rosser is Professor of Law at the Washington College of Law, where he has taught Property, Federal Indian Law, Poverty Law, Land Use, and Housing Law.

Remittances and Sustainable Community Development in Latin America

By Aaron T. Bell and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remittances to Latin America hit a record high in 2014 at $65.3 billion, according to the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, but their impact on development would be much greater with better coordination between sending  and recipient communities.  Mexico receives over one third of those funds, but remittances represent a significant component of GDP for many countries across the region.  The bulk comes from the United States, where 54 million Hispanics include 19 million first-generation immigrants, according to 2013 U.S. census figures.  In several Central American and Caribbean countries, funds sent home by migrants represent the largest single source of foreign exchange.

  • Remittances alleviate poverty by contributing to household income, helping to satisfy basic consumption needs, and sometimes enabling savings and investments in education.
  • Groups of migrants from particular communities sometimes pool resources through hometown associations to support shared objectives back home. A paved road or a new soccer field affects quality of life in tangible ways, and émigré financing of local political campaigns can determine the results of elections for mayors and other officials.
  • But remittances seldom promote local economic development initiatives that will generate sustainable incomes and opportunities for wide segments of the population – missing opportunities to address the causes of migration in the first place.

Some governments, development agencies, and philanthropies look to remittances as a potential mechanism for ensuring that Latin American citizens enjoy living conditions that afford them the “right not to migrate” from home communities.  Last month the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) convened a workshop to explore the challenges and opportunities for linking diaspora organizations in the United States, their communities of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean, and potential philanthropic partners to advance community development in the region through the effective deployment of remittancesParticipants identified several challenges.

  • Cooperation between immigrant-led diaspora organizations and their sending communities and governments is not a given.
  • Despite some research into hometown associations – created in the United States by migrants to connect with their communities of origin – we have relatively limited knowledge about how they function and the conditions that enable them to support community development.
  • Effective transnational cooperation requires broad multi-sectoral partnerships aligning immigrant-led groups, sending community organizations, and possibly governments and international funding institutions.

Despite information gaps and practical obstacles, there are successes to celebrate, such as the Salvadoran Fundación para la Educación Social, Económico y Cultural, with which the IAF has partnered.  Technical training on how to handle incoming funds and face-to-face meetings between participants and supporters in the United States and El Salvador have promoted transparency and trust.  Participants in the CLALS/IAF workshop offered several potential avenues for community organizations and philanthropic foundations to build enduring institutional connections.  It was agreed that further research should be conducted on hometown associations and other forms of diaspora organization to better understand how they function, how they relate to their affiliated sending communities, and how they can be catalysts to promote local development.  Policy-based research institutions in Latin America should be brought into the conversation, as should mainstream Latino organizations in the United States.  And immigrant associations and their counterparts in Latin America should not have to grapple with complex development challenges alone.  Indeed, U.S.-based community organizations and philanthropies could play a valuable role in catalyzing cooperation aimed at promoting development by making the case for public policies and transnational collaborative efforts that support “the right not to migrate.” Such development-supporting initiatives could, at least in theory, gain resonance across political groupings in the United States, appealing both to those interested in fostering global development and those concerned about immigration.

August 4, 2015