Butterflies Are Free, But Immigrants Too?

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 13, 2011

Last Friday this blog reported the complaint of a member of Mexico's political establishment that "the ignorance and prejudice that there is in the United States about Mexico is staggering. It's mind-boggling."

That observation came from former Mexican Congressman Carlos Heredia, who now directs the international studies program at the Center for Economic Research and Instruction in Mexico City (CIDE).

I think Mr. Heredia has good reason for his concern. Some Americans are indeed so poorly informed about our southern neighbor that they imagine it as nothing more than a nest of brutal drug lords and corrupt cops and impoverished peasants desperate to cross the Rio Grande.

That distorted view not only demeans Mexico, it undermines our ability to engage in cooperative efforts to deal with a long list of mutual challenges. Immigration tops the list.

Sunday's edition of Mexico's largest newspaper, El Universal, provided an unfortunate example of a sort of complementary Mexican ignorance of and prejudice toward the United States.

It came in the form of a column by another CIDE scholar, the distinguished Mexican historian, Jean Meyer.

Meyer lamented the "racist, nativist movements" that he and many other Mexicans see as the real force behind efforts in both the United States and Europe to stop illegal immigration.

Critics like Meyer make little effort to look beyond this and smug, distorted and resentfully nationalistic stereotype of their neighbors to the north. They take scant notice, for example, of the strains that two decades of mass illegal immigration into Arizona have imposed upon that state's neighborhoods, schools, health care systems and its overall fiscal health.

Misinformed by a Mexican press that frames the story as a melodramatic confrontation between Arizona bigots and noble "undocumented" immigrants, they are unaware of the sheer dimensions of the issue in Arizona. That state's illegal immigrant population soared from about 80,000 in 1990 to more than 570,000 in 2007.

Meyer, who immigrated to Mexico from France, wrote in his Sunday column that the efforts of rich nations to restrain immigration will have no more success than what he calls the repeated efforts by ecologists to stop the entry of invasive plant species. As an example, he cited a Mexican effort to curtail the eucalyptus tree which, he says, turns out to be ecologically important in the epic migration of the Monarch butterfly.

Meyer then took the poetic analogy over the top into metaphorical dreamland:

The Monarch butterfly is ours! Our beautiful symbol of great migrations, it does not recognize borders. It is permanently illegal and if even if it doesn't get wet crossing the Rio Grande, in fact it is no different from the "criminal" wetback Mexicans and Central Americans. It should be the symbol of all the world's migrants, legal and illegal.

The absurdly fanciful notion that the effects of millions of illegal immigrants and millions of monarch butterflies are essentially the same is as mind-boggling as any crazy notion about Mexico you'll find in the U.S.

As a postscript, I'd like to note that there are some Mexicans who take a fair-minded view of the immigration controversy in the U.S. Going against the common prejudice, they rise above anti-gringo stereotypes and reflexive nationalism.

For example, two years ago, prominent political journalist Sergio Sarmiento wrote this: "If Mexico had had an avalanche of foreigners so large in a period so short, the resistance would, without a doubt, have been greater. When we have had much smaller flows of foreigners – Argentines, Chileans, Central Americans – the reaction of Mexicans has been very negative."

Topics: Mexico