U.S.-Mexico: Trump’s Misguided Approach to NAFTA Renegotiation

By Robert A. Blecker*

Three people stand at podiums with flags behind them

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Mexican Minister of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo (L to R) participate in the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations in Washington, DC in October 2017. / State Department / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Trump has characterized NAFTA as a “win” for Mexico and a “loss” for the United States; his administration is currently working on a renegotiated “deal” that would allegedly reduce the U.S. trade deficit and recapture lost manufacturing employment, but his nationalistic approach fails to recognize the fundamental causes of both U.S. and Mexican economic problems.  In fact, NAFTA was a huge success for President George H.W. Bush and his administration, as it achieved their fundamental goal of enabling U.S. corporations to make products in Mexico with low-cost labor – without fear of expropriation, regulation, or other loss of property rights – and export them to the United States duty-free.  The Mexican government went along because it thought NAFTA would bring in desperately needed foreign investment and provide a growth stimulus, while U.S. and Canadian workers rightly feared that they would lose jobs as a result.  While much discussion has focused on which country “won” or “lost” in NAFTA, that is the wrong way to evaluate a trade agreement.  The two key criteria for judging the accord are which sectors, groups, or interests won and lost in each country, and how it, in conjunction with other policies, has affected long-term growth, development, and inequality in each.

  • Under NAFTA, U.S.-Mexican trade in goods and services has grown exponentially, reaching $623 billion (with a U.S. deficit of $69 billion) last year. However, NAFTA (along with other causes and policies) has contributed to worsening inequality in both the United States and Mexico.  Less-skilled U.S. workers definitely lost, with wage losses up to 17 percent in local areas most exposed to NAFTA tariff reductions.  In Mexico, although consumer gains from trade liberalization were widespread, upper-income groups and the northern region benefited the most.  Real wages for Mexican manufacturing workers have stagnated since 1994.  Labor shares of national income have fallen in both countries since the late 1990s.
  • Domestic policies, exchange rates, financial crises, and the impact of China can make the impact of NAFTA difficult to identify, but effects in some sectors are clear. Mexico gained jobs in automobiles and parts, appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, and seasonal produce.  The United States gained in basic grains, soybeans, animal feed, and paper products.  Although about a half million jobs in automobiles and related industries have “moved” to Mexico, total U.S. job losses in manufacturing (5 million since 2000) have been much more affected by China and technology than by Mexico.  What Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric ignores is that U.S. companies capitalized on these dislocations to raise their profit margins and increase their bargaining leverage over workers and governments both within North America and globally.

Trump’s aggressive posture about NAFTA exploits political discontent with these sectoral effects and the overall worsening of inequality, but the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)’s key demands in the renegotiation appear unlikely to remedy either problem.  USTR Lighthizer is focused on protection for the auto sector, by requiring higher U.S. content (or higher wages for Mexican auto workers), and on changes to dispute resolution procedures that would favor investment in the United States instead of in Mexico.  At best, these measures could bring back a small number of U.S. jobs; at worst, they could make some U.S. industries less competitive (if costs increase).

All of this debate in the United States ignores the fact that NAFTA has been a huge disappointment for Mexico.  Although export industries like automobiles have prospered, the gains to domestic sectors of the Mexican economy have been limited, resulting in sluggish growth (only 2.5 percent per year since 1994, far below the 7.6 percent achieved in East Asia) and leaving millions in poverty while millions more emigrated to the United States.  Of course, other policies and events (including Chinese competition) played into these outcomes, but NAFTA (and related liberalization policies) didn’t turn out to be the panacea for the Mexican economy that then-President Carlos Salinas promised in 1993.  Yet, in the short run the Mexican economy remains highly dependent on foreign investment and exports to the U.S. market, so Trump’s demands for a revised NAFTA and his threats to withdraw are undermining Mexico’s current economic prospects.  Instead of following Trump’s nationalistic approach, the three NAFTA members should focus on making all of North America into a more competitive region with rising living standards for workers in all three countries.  This would start with policies at home, such as public investment in infrastructure, education, and R&D, that could foster industrial growth, along with redistributive measures like higher minimum wages consistent with each country’s economic conditions.

May 11, 2018

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

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.

Mexico: Nationalism Alone is Not the Answer to Trump

By Gema Santamaría*

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In Mexico City, citizens mobilized against President Trump on his Inauguration Day with signs against U.S. imperialism (“Fuera Yankees”) and effigies of the U.S. President. / Adrián Martínez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Mexican government hasn’t yet figured out how to react to U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed policies toward Mexico, which have already eroded trust and potential cooperation, but one thing is clear: Mexican nationalism alone will not help.  In terms of security cooperation, Trump has proposed a “great wall” and increased police and military presence to keep “bad hombres” outside U.S. territory without the consent or cooperation of his southern neighbor.  The notion of shared responsibility, which shaped the Mérida Initiative and informed most cooperation under past administrations, has been virtually abandoned.  Instead, Mexico has been presented to the U.S. public only as the source of security challenges – illegal migration, drugs, and common crime – and not part of the solution.

The Mexican government’s response has been, so far, equivocal at best.  President Peña Nieto and his administration have proven incapable of articulating a coherent message towards Trump’s provocations.  Responding to an erratic, Twitter-driven foreign policy poses challenges for any country accustomed to traditional diplomatic interaction, but Peña Nieto has an additional force to manage:  surging nationalism from the left, center, and right.  This revival includes disjointed appeals on social media for citizens to boycott “gringo” companies – notably Starbucks – and to consume “only national” products.  Many campaigns express solidarity with the Mexican government as well as repudiation of Trump.  The cover of Letras Libres, for example, carries an image that emulates Mexico’s national coat of arms – an eagle attacking a snake – but the snake being devoured by the Mexican eagle wears a blond Trump-style hairdo.

Nationalism, however, is not the answer.  Beyond its potentially chauvinistic nature, it can too easily translate into a call for political loyalty and suppress necessary criticism of the current government.  In moments of crisis, Mexican elites have long used anti-American sentiment to create consensus, overcome divisions, and even conceal a government’s lack of legitimacy – unhelpful in a moment that, like now, citizens need to hold their government accountable for its impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses.

  • Instead of making themselves feel good with nationalist slogans, Mexicans should assert their commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation, not only in trade (which at times seems to be the only issue on the agenda) but also on matters of security, human rights, and the rule of law. A critique of Trump’s militaristic understanding of immigration should include a critique of Mexico’s own failure to adopt a more integral migration policy south of its border – one protecting Central American migrants from the rampage of organized crime and capable of addressing the institutional and structural challenges behind the surge of Central American migration.  Mexican citizens should call into question their government’s resort to militarized border control on the southern border, a strategy that in many ways mirrors the U.S.’ short-sighted and unilateral response to migration.  By the same token, criticism of Trump’s reactive and militarized vision of security should also involve a close look at Mexico’s own militarized, short-term, and repressive response to insecurity and violence.
  • Some Mexican intellectuals have insinuated that an effective critique of Trump and his policies calls for a revival of national pride and honor. Letras Libres director Enrique Krauze, for example, tweeted that not attending protests to denounce Trump’s actions is a sign of “passivity, indifference, and even cowardice.”  Yet if Mexico proves incapable of articulating a sound critique and resistance vis-à-vis Trump the real cause will not be a lack of nationalist ardor, but rather citizens’ incapacity to move beyond nationalism and uncritical support for their government.  Mexico does not need nationalistic and “brave” citizens as much as it needs a citizenry committed to international cooperation, transparency, and critical engagement and that can call into question another government’s erroneous policies – like Trump’s – while demanding better of its own.

April 13, 2017

* Gema Santamaría Balmaceda is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and a participant in the Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative.

Mexico: Changing the Narrative on Immigrants

By Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed deported citizens at Mexico City’s airport two weeks ago, a first for the president. / Gobierno de México / Creative Commons

President Donald Trump’s decision to put Mexican immigrants at the top of his enemies list has prompted Mexico to become more active – and more creative – in reaching out to compatriots in the United States to help them remain there or to cushion the shock of deportation.  Largely because unauthorized Mexican immigration had been in decline for many years, it rarely made front-page news in Mexico, but since Trump’s rhetoric during last year’s campaign and since winning the presidency there has been no topic more popular in Mexico.  The 5.8 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the United States, according to Pew Research Center estimates, have their home country worried about the economic impact their deportation could cause.  As Washington’s threat to deport millions looms ever larger, the Mexican government and other institutions are preparing for such a scenario.  Their game plan includes both helping Mexicans fight deportation and easing their transition if deported.

  • Mexican consulates in the United States are actively offering legal advice to any migrant facing deportation. President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the country would send $50 million to hire lawyers and set up outreach programs.  The consulates also set up a 24-hour hotline for immediate help and are actively sharing infographics on social media indicating how undocumented immigrants should react if they are detained.
  • Two weeks ago, President Peña Nieto personally received 135 deported Mexicans at Mexico City’s airport – the first time ever. Throughout the encounter he shared an upbeat and welcoming message.  He described Mexico as a “land of opportunities” and said, “The doors are always open.”  Dressed casually in a shirt without a tie, it was an image reminiscent of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm welcome of refugees.
  • Mexican political leaders have launched Operación Monarca, a multi-party movement to form alliances that benefit deported immigrants. A group of Mexican senators involved in the initiative participated in a forum last week in Phoenix, Arizona, entitled “Agenda Migrante,”at which dozens of undocumented immigrants shared anecdotes of their current situation, expressed their worries, and demanded Mexican officials and advocacy groups fight U.S. policy harder.
  • Universities in the country are also embracing the returning Mexicans. Universidad Iberoamericana, a private institution with various campuses around the country, offered 1,500 full-ride scholarships to incoming deported youths.  The public Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, also announced it’s starting to work with some U.S. colleges to assure that their students who are deported can continue their studies in Mexico.
  • Since Trump threatened to overhaul the tech-favored H1B visa work program, cities like Guadalajara have declared interest in becoming a technology hub. Mexicans hold a little more than one percent of the approximately 300,000 H1B visas (India has more than half), but the number of returning workers with technical qualifications could be significant.

President Trump’s border wall and its cost remain major irritants in the relationship, and there is great uncertainty over how the “renegotiation” of NAFTA will proceed, but Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and President Peña Nieto continue to say Mexico is willing to cooperate with the United States wherever they can.  They are hopeful to keep a strong relationship, while staying firm in their conviction that Mexico will not pay for the wall.  Their shift on the undocumented in the United States reflects that commitment.  No longer are unauthorized immigrants considered a long-term and one-sided issue in U.S.-Mexico relations, but rather an immediate and mutual problem.  Mexico’s welcoming and warm message is probably small comfort to those being deported, and it is unclear if any of these actions could mitigate the economic and social impact for them, but the Peña Nieto government appears to be giving priority to avoiding a major train wreck with Trump over immigrants for now, and leaving the details for the future.

February 20, 2017

* Carlos Diaz Barriga is a CLALS Graduate Fellow.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

As Mexico “Absorbs” Central American Refugees, Record Numbers Reach the U.S.

By Dennis Stinchcomb

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The meeting of world leaders that President Obama convened on Tuesday to rally support for refugee resettlement and inclusion across the globe was good diplomacy but contradicts Washington’s policies even in the Americas.  At a meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, Obama thanked Mexico for “absorbing a great number of refugees from Central America,” yet the data make clear that Mexico is hardly absorbing refugees.  During the first seven months of 2016, as WOLA has reported, Mexico granted asylum to just under 1,150 Central Americans but deported over 80,000 others.  Meanwhile, far greater numbers of Central Americans have reached the U.S., principally women with children (whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection labels “family units”) and minors traveling without a guardian (“unaccompanied children”).  With one month remaining in Fiscal Year 2016, apprehensions of Central American women with children total over 61,000 – up 79 percent from FY15 – and are on pace to surpass the FY14 record.  Likewise, apprehensions of unaccompanied children have already exceeded the FY15 total, and September numbers will likely push the current tally of 42,000 just shy of the FY14 record.

This renewed influx comes despite the Obama administration’s multi-pronged strategy to deter unauthorized migration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

  • U.S. support for Mexico’s Southern Border Program has resulted in unprecedented numbers of both detentions and deportations of Central Americans in Mexico, yet the dramatic increases in arrivals to the U.S. and shifting points of entry – including an upswing in seaborne trafficking – suggests that the exodus from the Northern Triangle continues and that human smugglers have adapted to stepped-up enforcement measures by forging new routes through Mexico.
  • Ongoing raids by U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) authorities, which under the banner of Operation Border Guardian aim to roundup unaccompanied youth who had been ordered deported from the U.S. and have recently turned 18, have not stemmed the tide of new arrivals fleeing untenable circumstances in their countries of origin.
  • Despite a July 2016 expansion of the CAM Program for in-country processing of youth applications for refugee status and for others in Central America asserting that they are at risk of harm, the pool of beneficiaries remains miniscule. Whereas the program had received 9,500 applicants by mid-year, only around 270 had been resettled in the U.S. With a six- to eight-month processing period and room for only 200 applicants at a time at shelters that have been set up in Costa Rica, desperate Central Americans continue to turn to more efficient human smugglers.
  • Public messaging campaigns launched in the region with U.S. government funding, to warn Central Americans of the dangers involved in irregular migration and to dispel misperceptions regarding U.S. immigration policies, also appear fruitless, as outlined in a recent American Immigration Council report).

President Obama’s efforts to galvanize international action in response to forced displacement worldwide highlight his own administration’s shortcomings in addressing refugee flows closer to home.  Expedited hiring of border patrol agents and an increase in the number of beds at contract detention facilities, among other domestic measures, have enabled the administration to process large volumes of Central American migrants while avoiding the appearance of a “border crisis” akin to 2014.  Meanwhile, an emphasis on curtailing outflows from Central America (without regard to the justification of people’s decision to flee), detention (rather than absorption) in Mexico, and deportation in both Mexico and the U.S. has not been matched with analogous investments to address the needs of Central American migrants already in the U.S. who may have legitimate claims for asylum or other forms of protection.  Central American families and unaccompanied children, for example, now account for over one-fourth (26 percent) of the 512,000-case backlog in immigration courts, yet only 53 percent of families and 56 percent of unaccompanied minors have access to attorneys.  In failing to guarantee legal representation for these vulnerable populations the administration is sidestepping the same moral obligation to thoroughly vet and provide safe, inclusive communities for refugees that President Obama challenges other governments to fulfill.  Perhaps funding that is supporting Mexico’s strategy of detention and deportation could be better allocated to programs that ensure proper adjudication of asylum claims – in both Mexico and the U.S. – and to genuinely seek to absorb individuals and families who, through due process, are judged to qualify as refugees.

September 22, 2016

Seismic Shift in the Politics of Language in the U.S.?

By Chip Gerfen*

Cruz Rubio Spanish

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Heated words between the two Latino U.S. senators seeking the Republican nomination earlier this year may have been the first time national-level candidates cudgeled each other over their use of Spanish on the campaign trail.  Current party frontrunner Donald Trump set the stage for it in June 2015, when he declared that Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”  In July, Trump promised a crowd in Phoenix that he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico – a trope and applause line that still stands front and center in his campaign.  Seven months later, during one of Ted Cruz’s attacks on Marco Rubio – over the issue of undocumented immigrants – the Texas senator attacked Rubio’s use of Spanish, saying:

“Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty.  In the state of Florida, as speaker of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish [emphasis added] and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office.”

Several years earlier, in a Fox News interview during his 2012 Senate campaign, Cruz refused to debate in Spanish, explaining:

“Most Texans speak English.  If we were in Mexico, if we were in Cuba, we’d do the debate in Spanish.   Here in Texas, we should do it in English.  [My opponent] wants to do a debate in a language where the vast majority of primary voters don’t understand it, because he doesn’t want them to hear about his record.”

Cruz’s attack on Rubio’s use of Spanish was a suggestion that he used the language to deceive non-Spanish speaking voters by saying one thing in Spanish and another in English.  This use of what linguists refer to as implicature – suggesting something in speech (or in writing) without explicitly stating or even openly implying it – is something that we all produce and have to interpret every day.  But Cruz makes a number of implicatures: that Spanish hides the truth from most voters; that the public political language for Texas is English and that Spanish should be used in other countries; and that he himself does not to fully embrace a Hispanic identity.  He also said that his Spanish was “lousy.”  In the February confrontation, Rubio turned the tables on Cruz by mocking his Spanish, asking “how [Cruz] knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak [Spanish].”  (Cruz responded in idiomatic Spanish – “ahora mismo díselo en español, si tú quieres” – that was much better than “lousy.”)

Such attacks are not entirely new.  As the Dallas Morning News reported in February 2012, Cruz stated that the traditional “American dream” was being destroyed by “letting people use their native languages and grow dependent on government aid,” suggesting that non-English speakers are non-contributing members of the society.  He also perpetuated the nonsensical but persistent myth that immigrants actively “refuse” to learn English.  Rubio apparently believes, however, that speaking Spanish is an asset.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – from a white, patrician family – had no difficulty spinning his Spanish skills positively.  But things are different for people surnamed Rubio or Cruz, for whom language use is a political decision.  Whereas Cruz attacked Rubio according to an old playbook – one that conjures up suspicious behavior and a refusal to integrate – Rubio calculated that bilingualism and biculturalism can now be positives in national politics.  With both Latinos out of the race, the baton has been passed back to Trump, who recently asserted that a U.S.-born “Mexican” judge named Gonzalo Curiel cannot fairly oversee a class action suit against him.  Rubio’s portrayal of language as a political asset, however, may be the more accurate bellwether in the long run, even if his party’s candidate continues to embrace the old playbook.

June 10, 2016

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, American University.

Children and Migrant Teens: Trapped with No Way Out

By Ursula Roldán Andrade*

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The 56,000 Central American children involved in the humanitarian crisis along the Mexico-United States border are trying to reach the United States not only to reunite with their families.  They are also driven by poverty, social exclusion and violence in their home countries of northern Central America.  The response of U.S. and Central American authorities, however, seems to be only to strengthen the barriers to migration – not only along the Mexico-United States border but also between Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  The United States has emphasized immediate deportation, and its request for funding includes an increase in the number of courts to expedite deportations and in enhanced border security with military and police forces.  The Obama Administration also seeks resources to address the consequences of emigration in Central America, where the governments have done little more than begin criminal prosecutions against the “coyote” network.  In Guatemala there are rumors that parents responsible for migrating children could face criminal charges.  Caring for would-be migrants is a much lower priority; there are only two shelters, of a capacity of less than 80 children, in charge of the Social Work Program of the Office of the First Lady of Guatemala (SOSEP), which has also proposed the improvement of child reception conditions.

A mass media campaign in Guatemala promotes the idea of children staying to fulfill the “Guatemalan Dream” rather than risk their lives attempting to live the “American Dream.”  Yet, the “Guatemalan Dream” that authorities are referring to is lacking.  The Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Guatemala (ODHAG), which has tracked human rights for children in the nation for the past 15 years, reported in 2011 that simply being alive in Guatemala means surviving health risks, food insecurity, and violence.  The report’s most revealing data show that over 48 percent of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition.  According to ODHAG, 51 percent of the deaths of minors in 2011 were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.  The report called on the state to take preemptive measures to protect children and adolescents from malnutrition, hunger, violence, abuse, and human trafficking networks, but the government still spends only 3.1 percent of GDP on this population, whereas other Central American countries invest 6 percent.

Central American children are caught in the crossfire of political discourse in the United States – a migrant population that either gains protection or is cast aside, sometimes with xenophobic or even racist overtones.  Partisan politics, interest in cheap labor, and other factors short-circuit debate, creating conditions for exploitation of migrants without recognition of their citizenship, families, or rights.  The Guatemalan government neglects its vulnerable population, is rife with political corruption, and is cursed with the narrow-mindedness of its economic elite, which does not, in the least, attempt to change the structural conditions that exclude and eventually expel their countrymen.  Solutions to the resulting humanitarian crisis will remain elusive as long as Central American governments do not guarantee fundamental rights and undertake policies aimed at the defending the higher interests of children and adolescents. 

* Dr. Roldán Andrade specializes on migration issues at the Center for Research and Policy Management (INGEP) at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala.

U.S.-Mexico: Border Liaison Groups—the Bread and Butter of Cooperation

By Carolyn Gallaher and David Shirk

"Little Road, Big Intersection" Photo credit: “Caveman Chuck” Coker / Foter / CC BY-ND

“Little Road, Big Intersection” Photo credit: “Caveman Chuck” Coker / Foter / CC BY-ND

Drug traffickers often find ingenious ways to get their product across the U.S.-Mexico border, but cooperation among Border Liaison Officers can often stop them.  In Mexicali, one trafficker used a pneumatic cannon attached to his truck bed to shoot packages of marijuana across the border for pickup.  After some surveillance, Border Patrol caught the truck in action.  Agents took down the license plate number and called an officer in the Mexicali police department, who looked up the number, tracked down the truck’s owner, and made an arrest.  Border Patrol agents knew who to call in Mexicali because they belong to the same border liaison group.  Although they receive little public attention, border liaison groups are a crucial part of the cooperative infrastructure between the two nations.  They allow cooperation to continue during, and in spite of, political transitions, diplomatic imbroglios, and other shifts in bilateral relations.

Border liaison groups are semi-formal organizations in which officers cooperate on policing cross-border crimes such as auto theft, low-level drug crimes, and smuggling.  They are usually organized and maintained by law enforcement officials.  The San Diego Police Department, for example, used to have a full team of officers whose full-time job was to liaison with officers in Mexico.  Membership in border liaison groups is not compulsory, however, and there are no restrictions on which agencies for which a member must work.  Groups usually include a mix of local, state, and federal officials. And meetings are typically held in informal places like restaurants, barbeques at members’ homes, or at organized events, such as boxing matches and softball games.

Border liaison groups facilitate cooperation in a number of ways.  In a structural sense, they help individuals navigate the other side’s bureaucracy – i.e. identifying which agency is in charge of a particular issue, and who in the agency you should call.  They are also fundamental for establishing trust.  In a context where corruption is an ever-present concern, border liaison groups give members a chance to get to know one another, and to discern potential partners’ trustworthiness.  A member of the Baja state’s preventive police force (known by its Spanish acronym PEP) told us, for example, that officers often use the “gut test.”  You only work with someone your gut says is “ok.”  (A California law enforcement officer told us it was similar to the “gut check” he used when meeting his teenage daughters’ suitors.)  Officers also use more tangible tests.  It is not uncommon to share a piece of information and track what happens with it.  If the information is used appropriately, the agent initiating the test may decide to share more substantial information.

One of the biggest threats facing border liaison groups is funding.  Budget cuts in California, for example, have led several law enforcement agencies to reduce liaison positions, or they have grafted liaison duties onto established jobs.  Another problem is replicating these groups in non-border areas.  The Cook County Special Investigations Unit in Chicago, for example, told us “we are the border,” noting that perpetrators and victims of crime in the city are often Mexican.  Without contacts on the other side, however, the unit can only communicate through official conduits in Washington (e.g., the FBI or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE) – a cumbersome process that most officers avoid.  Indeed, the sorts of information border liaison group members share – drivers’ license numbers, last known addresses, known associates – are too time-sensitive for formal channels to be of use.  The recent arrests of high-level kingpins in the Zetas and Gulf cartel tend to get widespread media attention, but the daily work by law enforcement officers is often just as important. 

Carolyn Gallaher is a professor in the School and International Service at American University.  David Shirk is a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of San Diego.

This project was supported by Award No. 2011-IJ-CX-0001, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.