Mexican Immigrants: Similarities and Differences

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By Manuel Garcia y Griego

Manuel Garcia y Griego placed his discussion of Mexicans as a special immigrant group within the context of examining this group at different points in the 20th century. He identified Mexican immigrants as "quite different" from a majority of the European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically because of their "manner of incorporation" into the U.S. and the "context of their reception." Conversely, he suggested that Mexican immigrants are "quite similar to the European flow" in their "motivation for migration and in their aspirations for life in the United States."

He identified the act of migration as "very much a self-interest and market-motivated kind of phenomenon," one characterizing European immigrants as much as Mexicans.

Garcia y Griego asserted that the similarities and differences between Mexican immigrants and other ethnic immigrant groups have produced a duality of outcomes, which he termed "a bimodal pattern of incorporation outcomes." One outcome, he noted, is that there is a widespread "lament" about the deficit in educational and socioeconomic achievement for Mexican immigrants and second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans as well. And yet these newcomers, he noted, share many values and political philosophies with their new countrymen; he specifically identified polls citing Mexican-American positions on abortion and even immigration controls. "Mexican-Americans, in some significant ways, mirror the native-born population," he said.

It is not unusual, Garcia y Griego, said, for him to attend a meeting of a Mexican-American organization and hear reference to the number of Mexican-American Congressional Medal of Honor winners or the number of Mexican-Americans serving in the armed forces of the United States. But at the same time, he acknowledged, Mexican immigrants have among the lowest naturalization rates of any ethnic group.

He then identified five themes that fall within his two larger points about the distinctions between Mexican and non-Mexican immigrants:

  • Illegal entry, as a "preeminent mode of arrival," is perhaps a "defining characteristic" of Mexican immigration to the United States. "Even most legal immigrants from Mexico first came illegally," Garcia y Griego said. "The only way many Mexican immigrants could obtain legal admission [early in the 20th century] was to first enter illegally, acquire a job, and then petition for legal status."

  • Mexican legal immigration "has come to be equated with a labor migration... with a flow of workers, of unskilled workers, into a particular set of industries and particular kinds of occupations farm work, sweatshops, entry-level service jobs." Earlier immigrants from Europe also entered into low-paying jobs, he noted, but in relation to today's American economy, the discrepancy in Mexicans wages and conditions is significant.

  • There has been and remains a sense that Mexican migration into the U.S. is temporary, rather than a resettlement. Much of this is a result of the fact that so many of the immigrants are illegal. A low-skilled, low-educated migration widely thought to locate in the U.S. only temporarily understandably retards assimilation, Garcia y Griego said.

  • Second- and third-generation Mexican-American organizations "have adopted as their principal goal the successful incorporation or re-assimilation of their population in the United States."

  • Mexicans are among both the oldest and the newest of immigrant flows into the U.S. "Large-scale, illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico is recorded in the 1940s and early 1950s," he pointed out. The formation of the Border Patrol in the 1920s also reflects this fact.

  • Garcia y Griego reminded participants that Mexicans are "to a great extent, like other non-Europeans, only more so." The post-1965 immigrant flow, most of it originating in Latin America and Asia, he said, "has come in both at the top and at the bottom of the socioeconomic status scale."

The Mexican Case

Martin Ford of the Maryland Office for New Americans questioned the accuracy of Skerry's claim that today's immigrant flow lacks diversity compared to preceding ones. He suggested that while California and Texas certainly receive disproportionately large flows of Mexican immigrants, other states with heavy immigration, such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, and perhaps Illinois, receive a truly diverse range of immigrants. Skerry pointed out that his claims were echoed in Huntington's keynote remarks and also by prominent researchers, including George Borjas and Arthur Mann. He also noted that in assessing the ethnic composition of an immigrant flow, a premium must be placed on a examining a finite period of time. Mexicans represent nearly 30 percent of today's flow, which is double the percentage of Germans immigrating to the U.S. between 1870 and 1920, when they were the largest immigrant group.

Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer asked both panelists to address the more controversial implications of the session's topic for instance, American citizens or legal residents voting in a foreign election or serving in the armed forces of a foreign nation. Garcia y Gregio responded that Mexican authorities would be as troubled by such voting as she is and that the Mexican government "makes a distinction between nationality and citizenship" that does not allow for Mexicans to be citizens in both countries. Skerry responded by claiming that assimilation by Mexicans is "ongoing," and that while he does share some of Geyer's concerns, he does not find them to be "at the center" of this debate. Instead, he would like to see the "terms of assimilation" addressed. Geyer's concerns, in comparison, he said, were "very much down the road."

Peter Spiro wondered if the per-country cap on immigration visas, which range between 20,000 and 25,000 annually, isn't exacerbating lack of diversity by encouraging illegal immigration from Mexico. He asked whether we should therefore be addressing our concern to illegal immigration.

Mark Krikorian interjected to remind participants that the per-country caps do not apply to immediate relatives or certain other immigration categories. The caps, he said, "really restrain no one, that's why Mexico has such a higher number than 20,000 [legal immigrants each year]." Krikorian then asked the panel to consider whether the size of the Mexican immigrant population in the U.S., organized to a large degree in effective advocacy groups, had a notably "problematic impact" on multicultural America.

Skerry acknowledged that Mexican-American leaders and organizations had no interest in "regulating or restricting the flow of immigration from Mexico at all, because it enlarges their constituency." But earlier Mexican-American leaders were comparatively receptive to advocating restrictions on immigration from Mexico, he said, because these leaders had stronger ties to "a much more vibrant labor movement." Large numbers of immigrants from Mexico were difficult to organize, "destabilizing" the institutions these leaders represented, he claimed.

Samuel Huntington offered some clarification of the remarks he had made in his keynote address. He reiterated that he does not advocate having a fence erected along the border with Mexico only because, however, "it wouldn't work." He added that any exploration of immigration from Mexico must be approached within the context of overall U.S. relations with that country. Finally, he offered enthusiastic endorsement of Skerry's remarks about the "crucial role" that "American politics, political institutions, and post-1965 American politics and institutions play in shaping" immigration policy today. "The environment of this country is so very, very different now than it was when we had other large-scale immigration," he concluded.

Steve Sailer claimed that the white ruling class in Mexico has for a long while viewed immigration as a "safety valve" to prevent race riots as well as wars within Mexico. He also suggested that Mexican presidents likely view the migration of the poorest Mexicans out of the country as a legitimate economic strategy. He said that the outgoing PRI president discussed openly the formation of a "dual loyalty lobby within the United States" modeled after the Jewish lobby for Israel. Such a lobby, he said, would push for even more immigration from Mexico.

Sailer then laid out a scenario in which newly elected presidents George W. Bush and Vincente Fox convene a summit in which some stark policies are brokered. Bush would reject Fox's call for open borders, Sailer suggested, but agree to calls for an increase in legal immigration quotas. For his part, Fox would pledge to "cut down on illegal immigration," which, Sailer noted, "I imagine will be just as effective as Mexico's cutting down on the drug trade."

John Fonte followed these remarks by "pressing" Peter Spiro on the issue of assimilation. He claimed that in bilingual education classes students often are using Mexican textbooks, being instructed by Mexican teachers, and occasionally the Mexican flag is raised in the classrooms. He suggested that the combination of multiculturalism with dual citizenship and dual nationality leads to a "transnational regime."

Robert Leiken of the Brookings Institute responded by noting that while Mexican textbooks are shipped to America in large numbers, they are not used as "basic texts" in American schools. He claimed that the scenario sketched by Fonte was far more a "caricature" of schools than an accurate reflection. Ron Unz, chairman of English for the Children, followed by observing that there is some anecdotal accuracy to Fonte's claims, but that they are not representative.

Toward the end of the session, Horowitz offered a picture of the evolution of the American political landscape after some decades of mass immigration. He noted that at present there are jurisdictions in which a Republican candidate who wins just 15 percent of the black vote necessarily wins the election. Conversely, a Democratic candidate, he said, who wins 35 percent of the white vote similarly wins. In the years ahead, he suggested, a Republican candidate is likely to find himself in an election in which even winning 20 percent of the non-white vote won't be enough. "And here's where we get to the evil," he said. "Sam Huntington says there won't be fences built around the United States. I'm not so sure. If we get to the point where there's the white party and there's the party of color and all you need is a handful of people on the other side and you win elections, we've got a very different country and we've got tensions of the sort Georgie Anne Geyer is talking about," he added.

Horowitz also noted the disparity in rhetoric he sees between the civil rights movement of the 1960s, during which he served as a civil rights law professor in Mississippi, and that characterizing the politics of today. The individual rights championed in the 1960s, he said, have given way to the group rights and grievances of today.

Joseph Carens responded to these concerns by acknowledging that probably most participants at the conference would agree that "multiculturalism and group rights" do not offer solutions to the problems faced by ethnic communities. But on some level, he claimed, there does have to be "group consciousness" the words of Peter Skerry, he noted in order to begin the process of identifying and thinking through the problems constituencies face.

Susan Gzesh, director of the Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network, noted the "tremendous acceleration in the economic, social, and cultural integration of the United States and Mexico." She asked, presented with evidence that 10 percent of Mexico's population now lives in the U.S., and a third of that in illegal status, "What are we going to do about it?"

"Expulsion is impossible...fences don't work," she added, and, therefore, "How do we incorporate people into our political spectrum?" She asked participants to share with her their ideas for devising a "two-track system" in which "we have an economic, social, and cultural reality and the legal regime, which doesn't really seem to accord with that."

Finally, Peter Skerry spoke to respond to Michael Horowitz's points about the future of racial and ethnic politics. He said he shared Horowitz's concerns about the formation of a white party and a non-white party. But he criticized Horowitz's insistence on drawing a firm distinction between the immigrants of the past who expressed "gratitude" for their experience and today's, who, Horowitz claimed, seem often to express "grievance." This distinction, Skerry claimed, "Can't co-exist in the same political thrust," or else "you're going to create such a white party."

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