A Historian view on How The Wall Rhetoric Changes Lives in Mexico

On Friday morning, President Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, in order to access billions of dollars in funding for the construction of a wall. In doing so, Trump defied the authority of Congress, which had settled on a bill to fund the government that included limited funding for border fencing. Another major issue for congressional negotiators was the number of immigrants held in detention. While Trump has been ramping up detention numbers, including of people seeking asylum, Democrats have been pushing back. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to fund just more than forty-five thousand beds, which would decrease the number of detained immigrants by about seventeen per cent. The debate over how many people the U.S. should detain has skirted a larger question: Why does America detain so many illegal immigrants and asylum seekers in the first place?

To discuss this question, and to get some historical perspective on U.S. relations with Mexico, I spoke by phone earlier this week with Ana Raquel Minian, an associate professor of history at Stanford and the author of the book “Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration.” During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the U.S. can do to create a more stable Mexico, the factors that cause net migration rates to go up and down over time, and why the U.S. did not always find it necessary to lock up people seeking asylum.

What is it about this moment in U.S.-Mexico relations regarding immigration that you think is interesting or unique?

Since 2008, there’s actually been net negative migration. So, what we see now is a lot of anti-Mexican rhetoric, for example, when Trump ran his campaign, we heard him say that Mexicans were coming in and they were probably criminals and rapists. But of course what he did not mention was that more Mexicans are leaving the country than coming in.

Mexican migration had grown steadily and increasingly since the end of the bracero program, especially undocumented migration. That was a guest-worker program that started in 1942, in which Mexican workers could come, work legally in the United States for short periods of time, and then return to Mexico. It continued until 1964. Undocumented folks were used to coming in the bracero program, and once the program ended, and they could no longer continue to come legally to the United States, they simply did so without papers. And migration continued to grow until 2008. So, in terms of what’s unique about this historical moment, in terms of Mexican migration, it’s that the rhetoric continues to be very anti-Mexican even though migration is actually in decline from Mexico.

And I assume the main reason for the decline is something to do with the economy in the United States and in Mexico?

Yes, well, a lot of things happened in 2008. The recession harmed Mexicans greatly and many just decided to start heading home. The other thing is that Mexican migration, up until 1986, used to be circular. It was primarily men who would come. They would stay here for a while, they would make some money, and then they would return home to be with their families. And then when they needed money again they would come again. Now, in 1986, what happens is there’s a new law [the Immigration Reform and Control Act] that legalizes a lot of people, but another thing that it does is it fortifies the U.S.-Mexico border, making it harder to engage in the circular migration of coming and going.

So if workers can’t continue to come and go between the two countries, and things in Mexico haven’t changed, they simply come to the United States and settle here permanently and they bring their families. Now, many cannot bring their families, so by 2008 many have lived in the United States for many, many years without seeing their mothers, for example, and the recession hit, and many thought that it’s no longer worth it to live in the United States, and they start heading back home to be with their family members. Another thing that occurs around that period is that the drug cartels make the border region much more dangerous and some people are scared of crossing. It’s the combination of those factors that encourages people to rethink their choices and to go back to Mexico instead of migrating in such high numbers.

Another factor that’s extremely important is that, in the nineteen-seventies, Mexico started a campaign to lower population size under the theme of “The small family lives better, la familia pequeña vive mejor.” Up until the mid-nineteen-seventies, or the early nineteen-seventies, the Mexican government had encouraged population growth, but in 1973 it passed a new population law which says, What we need to do is reduce this population growth, it’s a problem. And, in fact, population growth in Mexico has declined steadily, so if you think about the repercussions of this law, there has been a decline in fertility which eventually means there’s just fewer people who want to migrate.

That brings us to today, and one of the things that your work is focussed on is the fact that the U.S. government did not always detain immigrants who cross the border illegally. When did that shift, and why did it shift?

Right, so immigration detention has a very long history. It starts in the late nineteenth century. Immigrants were generally put in detention. For example, what happened at Ellis Island. Now, by 1954, there have been changing views of immigrants, there has been a declining rate of immigration, and so the Immigration and Naturalization Service says, There are better ways to handle these people. They don’t necessarily need to be kept in detention while we decide what to do with them. And so they release them, unless they pose a threat to U.S. society, or unless they believe that they can escape, that they’re not going to return when called upon to do so. They let them go out, and now the Supreme Court says that, basically, the qualities of an enlightened civilization mean that we’re no longer detaining people.

But in 1980 Fidel Castro decides to allow all Cubans who want to leave the island to do so, and a hundred and twenty-four thousand people leave Cuba to come to the United States—they leave through the port of Mariel, so this is known as the Mariel boatlift. And once they’re on their way Castro says, You know what? Among those who are heading to the United States, we sent some criminals and homosexuals and people who had been in mental institutions. And, of course, Americans go crazy. They become very, very scared as to what’s going to happen.

When folks from Mariel arrive, many are sent to [military] bases throughout the country, where someone needs to sponsor them, but those who were believed to be criminals are sent to prison in the United States. Additionally, during these years, Haitians start coming in increasing numbers as well. And the United States is also very opposed to Haitians—you know, Haitians are seen as particularly dangerous. One of the ways in which they want to deal with Haitians is to interdict them at sea, to prevent them from even entering the country. But another means to disincline them to come is to put them in detention. So, between the folks who come in Mariel and the Haitians, then detention starts to grow all over again.

How does that then switch to a process where it just became normal to detain people who came from anywhere, including Mexico?

Once detention starts to grow, facilities start to grow, and government officials at different levels, including I.N.S., start to say, We need to build more detention centers. Kind of like now, we’re saying, We need to have more beds. It was the I.N.S. that formalized the process of blanket detention. And in some ways it could be argued that it’s a humane thing, you know, like, Oh, we need to keep them with good beds. But, actually, by increasing the number of detention centers, it leads to more detained people. So that’s what happens and, in fact, it becomes a for-profit industry. The first for-profit prisons in the United States were actually immigration-detention centers.

Was there any point at which you think detention actually was more humane? And, second, is there any way that you think it could be the humane alternative now but we’re just not giving enough money or oversight of it? Or do you think that it’s inherently not humane?

I think detention is inherently not humane. It’s keeping people behind bars, and if we think about who we’re keeping behind bars right now it’s people who came to the United States to seek asylum, who have not committed any crimes, who have not done anything. They are not a threat to our society. I don’t know why we can’t let them be in our society.

The debate around this now is focussed a lot on the number of beds. Democrats want fewer, which they hope will encourage ice to detain fewer people, and Trump wants more, to be able to detain more people. What do you think of what the Democrats are trying to do? Do you think it’s sufficient?

I think the United States has in the past been able to incorporate a lot of immigrants, and the economy is doing very well. There’s no reason for us not to be able to incorporate immigrants right now. In fact, [undocumented] immigrants have been incorporated in our society; they just live in the shadows and there’s no reason for that to be happening. And the United States has accepted asylum seekers and refugees in the past, and this is a moment where we can go from a nation that says no to asylum seekers and refugees to one that can see people who are fleeing danger and welcome them. And while they are applying for asylum they can be in our society. There’s no reason not to have them live freely while deciding.

How have the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants coming from Central America changed the discussion about Mexican migration?

That’s super-interesting because when Mexican migration goes down Central Americans come in increasing numbers. And, in some ways, when Trump launched his campaign, he spoke against Mexicans specifically. With the caravans, the rhetoric started to switch. He brought up MS-13. And, in fact, the U.S. puts a lot of pressure on Mexico, as it has since the nineteen-eighties, to stop the flow of Central Americans.

Has the rise of Central American migration changed the debate or circumstances within Mexico?

Crossing through Mexico is actually much more dangerous than crossing theMexican-American border. I don’t think that Mexico as a country has supported Central Americans. There are individual communities, but I don’t think society as a whole has rallied so that the government allows free passage of Central Americans through Mexico. In the nineteen-eighties, the United States actually started saying, O.K., Mexico, if you want undocumented Mexicans to come, we want to fortify the border, so if you stop Central Americans from coming, we will allow more Mexicans. That didn’t end up happening, but the U.S. has for a long time been pressuring the Mexican government, and the Mexican government has made it illegal to go through Mexico, just like it’s illegal to come into the United States. This hasn’t stopped Central Americans from going through Mexico, but it has made it more dangerous for them and has increased crime. When you make a practice illegal, extortion goes up, corruption goes up, and violence against the community that has to go through this goes up.

What can the United States do to insure the continued economic development of Mexico, which would presumably in the long run mean that more people want to stay in Mexico?

I think that Mexicans should have the ability to stay in their own country if they so desire. So, what would allow that to happen? There are a number of factors. The types of investments that have happened in Mexico have often been investments that encourage migration rather than not. So, for example, Mexico invested in the green revolution, and what the green revolution did was it encouraged people who did not have irrigated farms, et cetera, to migrate to the United States.

Similarly, and this is not in terms of investments but in terms of the trade deals, nafta very much encouraged people to migrate by affecting poor people in the countryside. It benefitted some groups, but it very much harmed the poor agricultural sector in Mexico, and left them with few alternatives to migrating. Part of what needs to be done is encouraging forms of investment that actually help the poorest sectors of Mexico, if we want migration not to happen.

Nowadays, we also need to think in terms of violence. A lot of people who are leaving Mexico are leaving because of the growing rates of violence, and so it’s important to think of them not as migrants anymore but as refugees. And one of the ways to bring civility to Mexico would be to reduce arms sales. The United States sells most of the arms that go to Mexico. Legalizing marijuana would also help. But I think the connection with arms is one of the most important things. Mexicans are killing themselves, and they’re doing so with U.S. arms. If we’re going to think about reducing migration that’s one of the important things; it’s no longer totally economic.

And then let’s think about the other side, in terms of what can be done to reduce undocumented migration. Right now, there’s a huge disparity between the number of people who are coming and who are needed by the U.S. economy and the number of available visas. And if we want to bring people legally, and incorporate them into our society fully without forcing them to live in the shadows, which breaks the law, one of the things that we can do is to increase the number of immigrant visas.

Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Source: The New Yorker

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