One sore spot of our modern world system is that it was never able to satisfyingly deal with mass migration and the uneasiness this ancient human phenomenon poses to nation states. The solution is not in sight, at least not in mine. What I do offer, is the insight that for a country like Mexico the real problem with migration are not the migrants, but the impact the topic of migration itself might have on national political culture. As a social scientist that empirically studies transmigration, I will first contextualize the current Mexican migration ‘crisis’ and demonstrate how this is only a minor problem for Mexico itself. In the second part, echoing the European experience with this topic, I will explain how the reactions to the topic of migration chronically disturb the political landscape and culture.
Migration into and through Mexico became politicized over the last years. This so called transmigration mainly consists of people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who cross Mexico on their voyage to the United States – although there is a small trend towards settling in Mexico. Since a year this decades old migration stream was constructed as a problem or even national emergency for both Mexico and the United States, as many Mexicans eagerly copied the huffing and puffing of Trump in the background. Commonly shared stereotypes include that these people come are mere opportunists, and them being unthankful for ‘everything Mexico did for them’. Let us clarify some facts.
According to our own interviews with 60 migrants as well as the research of others, the main reasons are seeking security and escaping poverty. The order is important. Contrary to some popular beliefs regarding economic opportunism, most transmigrants flee because they are facing imminent threats to their lives. For example small business owners who missed a payment to the local Mara gang or were witness to a crime, and are told that they have 24 hours to leave the country. Or the forced choice between leaving and letting your son join the gang, occasionally backed up by the body of a dead relative. For sceptics it is worth nothing that Honduras and El Salvador are amongst the countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Escaping poverty or seeking opportunities is the second reason, especially in the case of Guatemala. This can mean literal escape in the sense of children living in semi slavery, or seeking opportunities to earn more than one would as a farmer or worker. A third reason is the special case of people seeking to reconnect with family, occasionally after facing deportation.
Some qualifications are also in place regarding Mexico’s hospitality. Let us first recognize how insanely dangerous this journey is. Some get hurt along the road, either by falling off or being dismembered by trains, getting bitten by animals or dying of dehydration in the desert. Yet the danger goes beyond the usual risks of shipwreck and accidents that migrants take elsewhere in the world, for in Mexico the migrants are not just unprotected but directly preyed upon. Robbery by gangs or authorities is standard, rape is common (a conservative estimate is about 8/10 women), and kidnapping or murder by cartels are regular. Contrary to U.S. propaganda, Mexico has made extensive efforts to limit migration and send back ten thousands of immigrants, militarizing the border and dedicating a special police force to it. One could say that, through detaining, killing, raping and abandoning migrants, Mexico itself is the wall.
Accepting these general realities is a good starting point for discussing migration. However in the last two years the phenomenon of the three ‘caravans’ has shifted the framing from seeing migration as humanitarian disaster to viewing migration itself as a problem. These organized caravans suspiciously coincided with key moments in U.S. politics, such as the midterm elections (second caravan) and the government shutdown over border wall funding (third caravan). This allowed Trump (and a legion of trolls) to raise public pressure on Mexico to recognize their migration problem. But how big are the caravans really in a country of 123 million? At the peak of the migration crisis of 2015 and 2016, Greece and Italy received more people per day than fit in one of these caravans. Furthermore, in contrast to the African and Arabian influx of southern Europe, our immigrants are fellow Latinos with similar linguistic and religious backgrounds. Certainly, with the Northern border blocked even a few thousand people bottlenecked in one place (Tijuana, Hermosillo, etc.) can create practical problems and tensions. Sin embargo, I will argue that the real danger for Mexico’s future lies elsewhere.
The migration discussion itself could damage Mexican political culture in two ways: first by lowering national moral standards and values; second by opening the political space for a far right political faction. The first is of only minor importance by leads to the second. Let us remember: Mexico one of the countries with the highest number of nationals moving and living abroad, with well over 90% living in the United States. It is a fact that the U.S. has a much stronger case to be concerned about Mexican immigrants than Mexico has over Middle American ones, although mentioning this hypocrisy causes instant rage. Surprisingly, by the end of 2018 many devout ‘Christians’ spread intense hate and misinformation about these migrants, including both calls for violence, as well as actual assaults. This divorce between being a Christian country of migrants and the treatment of others is painful. But maybe such inconsistency of values was always there, and this was only surprising to el extranjero politico. One can see similarities with the shocking display of masochistic glee of those celebrating the deaths of the oil thieves.
But what would certainly be new is if an anti-immigrant party would to appear the far right of the PAN. It is relatively easy for fascist minded politicians or other opportunists to rally a frustrated population against an external enemy such as immigrants. This is further aided by cultural attitudes that value praising those above you while kicking and ignoring the ones below. In Europe we have seen this has led to relatively durable far right parties, such as the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the PVV in the Netherlands, Front National in France and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. In some countries like Hungary they conquered the government. The tragedy is that in most cases these parties bunker down in a largely wasted part of the political spectrum, never engaging in other policy discussions or trading the votes of their constituents for actual policies representing their interests. This is either because these parties are blocked from participation by the others or because they are unwilling to actually engage in real leadership. Decades of political debate are wasted as they keep reducing the political agenda to this one issue.
So what, my closeted xenophobic reader might ask? Well, even the fledgling fascist supporter runs a high risk of being tricked – unless they own a big company. The trick of fascism is always the same: rally the masses against an internal or external enemy, make some barely consistent promises to everyone, and use the working class support to push a corporatist capitalist agenda. Far right leaders often don’t really care for the immigrants, crime or whatever evil the offer to protect you from, but instead move fast to secure tax cuts and privatizations. This was recently seen in the U.S., and I’m fairly confident similar things will become evident in Brazil.
Mexico has so far been spared of this game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ between neoliberals and neofascists who take turns in bamboozeling the masses in practically supporting elite interests. My governor Bronco briefly tested the waters, but we are not there yet. Avoiding such a development is key, since it is very hard to reverse. An early mistake of many commentators was to assume that populist parties are somehow less durable than others. There is no empirical support for such claims, as in most countries the far right is anchored into the political spectrum. Mexico has many other challenges to face and cannot afford to have its political agenda hijacked by such forces. I only see three ways of avoiding this. The first reaction is to fight these xenophobic notions head on by pointing out the wrongs and moral inconsistences. Unfortunately, over time people create immunities for moral reasoning and facts regarding outsiders, and over my lifetime I have noticed little progress regarding this issue in Europe (compare for example to the spectacular progress in respect for gays). Matter of fact, the only way in which people have been brought back to the rest of the spectrum is by refocusing their frustration to other, more pressing problems. If the current government is able to do so AND show people tangible successes in collectively tackling problems such as poverty, the demand for such parties can be avoided. The last and most fundamental route is to tackle the root causes of migration by supporting welfare and justice in the countries of origin. In Mexico’s case, taking up regional leadership in creating an international front to better deal with insecurity and poverty is a good beginning.