Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Mexican Take on Immigration

So much of the talk about Mexican immigration over the past few years has focused on U.S. government policy. Congress keeps debating immigration policy, and both the media and community leaders keep offering advice and arguments. Yet we almost never hear about how the issue looks to Mexicans. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Armando Labra, who represents northeastern Ohio in the Consejo Consultivo – the consulting council – of the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior, a Mexican government organization that provides services for and maintains connections with Mexicans who are living outside of their home country.

Mexicans have been living in the Mahoning Valley for generations, but they are not one of the groups that comes to mind when we think about the ethnic history of this area. In the past decade, the local Mexican population has become more visible, largely through the restaurant industry, but Mexicans first came to this area for the same reasons almost everyone else did – to work in the steel mills.

It’s in part because of the closing of the steel mills, and the long economic decline our region has struggled through ever since, that local attitudes about Mexican immigrants are often very negative. Anyone who comes here looking for work is seen as competition, even when they are doing work that others don’t want. Add to that the national media coverage of the rise of illegal immigration, raids on workplaces, legal battles about immigrants’ rights, and the kind of fear-mongering anti-immigrant discourse heard from commentators like Lou Dobbs – and the result is a culture of discrimination and hatred aimed at hard-working people who endure incredible hardship in order to provide for their families. It’s true that many (but not all) of the Mexicans living and working in the U.S. are breaking the law, but they are also human beings doing whatever it takes to survive.

Sadly, opposition to illegal immigration generates discrimination against Latinos in general, regardless of their legal status. I grew up in Colorado, which had a large and primarily legal Mexican population whose families had lived in the state for generations, and Mexicans were discriminated against even in that setting. In recent years, as Latinos are becoming a larger portion of the U.S. population, anti-Hispanic prejudice and discrimination have gotten worse.

What may surprise many Americans is that, as Labra explains in our interview, many Mexicans would like to see an end to illegal immigration. They don’t want to have to travel thousands of miles away from their families, risking injury, arrest, and exploitation, for the sake of economic survival. But, as he explains, the answer may lie less with the U.S. government than with the Mexican government. It would be best for Mexico if those who have left would return home. It makes sense, really. Mexico loses out when its citizens go elsewhere. Families and communities lose important members, making them weaker and less able to cope with struggles, and neither the local nor the national economy grow when so many people are leaving. The problems is that the Mexican economy is in bad shape, and the Mexican government does not seem to have an effective plan for improving it. With the rest of the global economy struggling these days, economic recovery for Mexico seems unlikely.

So, it seems, we’re stuck. Many Americans (but not all) don’t want Mexicans here, and many Mexicans don’t really want to be here. Economics keeps us together. Americans want cheap labor, and Mexicans need jobs. The only policy that will resolve the problem is a policy of economic growth.

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