A few days ago, I watched Espiral, an opinion program broadcast on the Mexican television channel, Canal Once. The overall theme was quite interesting: the attitude Mexicans have toward immigrants. This is a topic we rarely hear anything about in Mexico, but one that has suddenly come to the forefront due to the large Central American caravans that are scaring the bejesus out of the Republicans and some Democrats in El Norte.
Historically, Mexico has had little immigration. In the late 1800s, when the U.S. was receiving massive migrations from Europe that would propel the Americans into a world economic power, President Porfirio Díaz attempted to make Mexico a destination for Europeans who were looking toward the Americas. Unfortunately, his efforts were not very successful; the only people Díaz attracted were rich investors to whom he parceled out the country’s wealth and who ended up owning large parts of Mexico in absentia. During this time some Chinese also arrived in the northern states. It would take the Revolution of 1910 to get rid of the former and the Great Depression to repatriate many of the latter.
In the twentieth century, there were some small waves of immigration that left a noticeable footprint. President Lázaro Cardenas opened the country to the Spanish War refugees and in the 1970s many Argentines and Chileans fled the murderous dictatorships in their respective countries and settled in Mexico. After the Mexican Revolution, other immigrants also arrived, especially diaspora Jews and Lebanese, whose experiences are depicted in movies the likes of Guita Schyfter’s Novia que te vea (1994) and El baisano Jalil (1942) co-directed by Joaquín Pardavé and Roberto Gavaldón. Without the Lebanese, we wouldn’t have one of the richest men in the world, Carlos Slim, or a famous movie actress, Salma Hayek.
Other than these small waves there has been little immigration to our country. Statistics show that today less than one percent of the population in Mexico is foreign-born, and I’m not sure if these include the colonies of retired Americans and Canadians who may be more “snowbirds” than true immigrants. Nonetheless, this seems to point out that most people in Mexico have very little contact with the immigrant experience at home. To most Mexicans, immigration is an event that happens in other places, mainly the U.S. and Europe. The question is: What will happen now that Mexicans are experiencing immigration as increasing caravans of centroamericanos and caribeños are crossing through Mexico or using the country as a stepping stone into the United States?
Well, for starters, Mexicans have had an ambivalent opinion when it comes to foreigners. Yes, we know the famous cliché, “mi casa es su casa,” but the fact is that a xenophobic streak has run through our society for many years manifest in laws such as one that until recently prohibited foreigners from buying beachfront property or another law that prohibits naturalized citizens from holding office in government.
Nowadays, however, the attitude toward foreigners may be more positive as was pointed out by a guest in Espiral, but it does not bode well for our so-called Latin American brothers and sisters since statistics show that Mexicans have a higher opinion of people from other countries such as the USA and Spain than they do of Guatemalans. I doubt that salvadoreños and hondureños fare much better.
This is why it is concerning what will happen if Donald Trump makes good on his promise to close the borders to the caravans of Central Americans that threaten to get bigger and make their way north more often. Mexico could find itself flooded with enclaves of immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, stuck at the border, waiting to make it over that damn beautiful wall while being walled off from a Mexican society that doesn’t have a very positive opinion of Central Americans. It could set up the perfect conditions for corrupt politicians and drug cartels to quickly move in and exploit the situation and make the lives of these immigrant-refugees a hell on earth.
This is why it’s imperative for the Mexican and American governments to find a viable solution. For now, they are all talking the same game: entice the immigrants to stay in Mexico by offering political asylum and jobs. But the fact is Peña Nieto and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) have a hot potato on their hands and I don’t think they know what to do about it. They lack the resources to successfully implement Peña Nieto’s ridiculous program, “Estás en tu casa,” which emphasizes having legal documents, working in demeaning low-paying jobs, and restriction of movement to the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. And you know deportation will always be looming in the background because Mexico may be “tu casa,” but it is a Mexican house of cards.
It would be a shame if the immigrant-refugees suffered the fate of the Chinese that arrived during the Porfiriato seeking to eventually enter the United States: many were massacred by Villista revolutionaries and others were deported with their Mexican families back to China during the Great Depression. Nationalism and downturns in the economy tend to bring out the worst in people.
In this sense, Peña Nieto may be leaving a big powder keg for AMLO, whose peace and love politics may not work in the present immigrant crisis developing in Mexico. The President-elect will probably resort to his favorite political stunt and poll the people to consult their opinion concerning the caravanas de refugiados. If the outburst of anti-immigrant sentiment that exploded on social media in Mexico in the past couple of weeks is any indication, it could be that there is already an underlying negative attitude possibly fueled by Peña Nieto’s and AMLO’s promises of jobs for Central Americans, in a country where many of its citizens struggle every day to find one. Let’s hope the economy remains robust, if not, nationalism may rear its ugly head and make the life of immigrant-refugees more hellish than it already is.