Thursday, February 09, 2012

Jorge Castaneda: Ex Mex

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"Ex Mex" is a book about policy by the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico under Vicente Fox, the first democratically elected president of Mexico. He gives insight into how it really goes down between the Mexican and American governments, and policy suggestions for making the nations' immigration policies functional and humane.  He tells it like it is, or at least, how it was- the book was published in 2007 and Jorge Castaneda fails to predict two major things: the economic crash and the 2006 passage of the "Secure Fence Act" discussed previously. In fact, Castaneda seems almost certain that the passage of the Secure Fence Act is such a preposterous idea that it doesn't stand a chance. He has great faith in George Bush's devotion to immigration reform, sometimes to the point of straining his own credibility. The same goes for his failure to forsee the economic changes of 2008: maybe this is just hindsight, but it does seem like the writing should have been on the wall for a politician by 2006.

Castaneda has a lot to offer, though, and is worth quoting at length.
At the end of the day, Mexicans emigrate for reasons similar to those of others thorughout history. They are looking for better-paying jobs than the ones they can find and keep at home; they are not necessarily unemployed, and, in fact generally are employed in the case of those who come from the cities- a growing segment. Most emigrants hold jobs- without some income they could not pay for the voyage- but low-paing ones. As long as the wage differential (up to ten to one) between the two countries remains as large as it is, and compensates in the mind of teh migrants for the danger, fear, and misery of the exodus, they will continue to travel. This is why there is a basic contradiction in the viewpoint many people in the United States- liberals and conservatives- have of the process. If they want free trade between Mexico and the United States to work, capital must flow to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages to make American firms more competitive; but if wages are low enough to attract capital, they are also low enough to drive emigration.
Previously, there was what Castaneda calls "circularity": Mexicans were migrants as the subtitle suggests. This ended in 1996, according to Castaneda, and Clinton's crackdown on immigration via walls and difficult entry processes. This made crossing and extremely difficult and risky process not worthy of repeating. Rather than going north for seasonal or temporary work, Mexicans cross and don't go back, becoming immigrants.  Previously, there were also traditional Mexican "gateway" states- California and Texas, New York, Florida, etc.  But more recently, there are second- and third-tier states with fast growing and large Mexican settlements: North Carolina, Georgia and Washington in the first group, South Dakota, Missouri, New Hampshire in the second group.  Meanwhile, the "sending states" from Mexico are changing as well: previously almost all of the migrants came from the rural and conservative states of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Michoacan or Zacatecas, a mining state in the center of Mexico. But since the 80s, areas all over the country, including Mexico City are becoming sending states. Previously Mexicans looked down on emigrants to the US, but now, Castaneda shows, the tides have turned, for a variety of reasons, many practical and financial.

This book is short, but complicated and full of lots of information not really sum-up-able. It's not really for the casual reader, or even the casual readers of all things Mexico/America related. And I'm not sure that it has stood the test of time, although it would in an updated edition. I was particularly concerned with Castanedas repeated assertion that the birth rate/average age in Mexico is expected to decline soon, and the policy and financial implications that will have. However, for the non-casual reader of all things Mexico/America related like themacinator, it's a necessary piece of the puzzle, one that includes lots of information from top level discussions that I've never heard before and probably couldn't get without reading serious academic books or policy papers only available in Washington DC. Castaneda, unlike the social scientist types that I normally read, has real suggestions for policy rather than just depressing eye-opening looks at the ground, and this abstraction is refreshing and important, even though gruesome images of dead bodies make for better reads. Bottom line: Castaneda is worth listening to if you see him around, but don't bother with this book.