Fault lines in the US–Mexico relationship
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0:9 Douglas Blackmon (set over shoulder): This week on American Forum, the future of Hispanics in America and what’s really in store on the Immigration Issue.
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0:48 Blackmon: Is there any issue more confusing and filled with contradiction than America’s schizophrenic relationship with the people and the nation immediately south of the United States border? We’re told that undocumented workers from Mexico are displacing millions of Americans from jobs they deserve. Yet, when the country successfully blocks those immigrants, big businesses and farmers say they can’t make it without them, that American citizens don’t want those jobs. Many Americans believe there is an uncheck tsunami of illegal immigration, that Democrats are in favor of that flood and Republicans oppose it, and that those noncitizens are responsible for large numbers of terrible crimes. In fact, illegal entry and the number of Latino immigrants living without papers in the U.S. fell dramatically during the presidency of Barack Obama, partly due to a tighter border than during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. And there is no statistical basis for the idea that immigrants commit more crimes than others. Historically, Americans learned a Hollywood story in which what is now the Southwestern US was nothing but barren desert and ruined adobe churches until white illegal immigrants from the United States arrived 150 years ago and miraculously created the prosperous Sun Belt. Many of us imagine Mexico today mostly as a lawless badland of drug lords and poverty. The real history is different. Generations of Americans and Americans and Mexican Americans worked and lived collaboratively along the border. Today, Mexico is a crucial trading partner, selling us nearly $275 billion in imports including cars and auto parts worth $42 billion in 2016.
Finally, we’re led to believe that Hispanics, now the second-largest ethnic group in the US, are on the verge of tipping the balance of our politics all across the country, that they will become anchors of the Democratic party and that they voted en masse against President Donald Trump because of his plan to build a wall at the Mexican border. The reality? More than half of all Hispanics in the US live in just three states: California, Texas, and Florida. And while Hillary Clinton got far more Latino votes in the 2016 election, President Trump actually did a little bit better than Mitt Romney four years earlier, and a county-by-county voting analysis by our guest in this episode found that many Latinos in rural areas pulled the same lever for Donald Trump that middle-class whites did.
Geraldo Cadava is a professor of history at Northwestern University and something of a specialist in puncturing preconceived notions about Hispanics. He has told the rich history of Latinos in America as well as their troubled present and the place of Hispanic voters in current presidential politics. He’s the author of Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, which tells the story of two sides of the border: Tuscon, Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. He’s currently writing a book about Hispanics and conservative politics. Thank you for being here.
Geraldo Cadava: Thank you for having me.
3:47 Blackmon: So let’s start with the most counterintuitive idea among any of the ones that I suggested and many others. I could have gone on and on, but this notion that Hispanics, Latinos—whichever term we want to use—that these voters actually showed more support for Donald Trump than the presumption would be. But so is that actually the case? Why is that the case, and how does it square up with that—all the stories that we’re hearing right now about Latinos not testifying in court, not sending their kids to school, fearful of this dramatic uptick in deportation or that there is one? How do we square the idea that there was more support for Donald Trump than perhaps expected and that, now, there’s a panic among Hispanics in America?
Cadava: It seems like he did do better than most expected. He won—estimates disagree, but somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of the Latino vote, which is actually in sync with the percentages that have voted for Republican candidates over the past 50 years or so. But because of all of his inflammatory remarks on the campaign trail, it was widely expected that he would be on the lower end of that range from 20 percent to 40 percent, so it was a surprise.
I think that low voter turnout certainly contributed to it. I think the ways in which he spoke to some issues that Latinos care about on the campaign trail that aren’t particularly Latino issues and certainly weren’t framed as such, but creating jobs, parental choice in education, things like that. I think he—parts of his message resonated with Latinos.
5:36 Blackmon: There are two main groups we’re talking about, those that are legally in the United States and those that are not. Obviously, that’s a big division, but also just ethnically, and we are talking about an ethnicity, not a race. That’s another confusing thing. But that, while Mexicans make up—people of Mexican heritage, of some Mexican heritage, make of the majority of Latinos in the U.S.
FACTOID: As of 2015, 64% of Latinos were of Mexican origin, 3.7% from Cuba Nonetheless, there are all sorts of other folks, some of whom don’t like each other traditionally, culturally, and the—and some of whom may be having very different experiences. But so break that down a little bit for us. What are we—who are we talking about?
Cadava: I mean, it’s an incredibly diverse group of people that we’re talking about so diverse to the point that many people will say that there’s really no such thing as “Latino.”
FACTOID: Cadava book on conservatives and Latinos to be published in 2020
And, in fact, one of the greatest challenges to my current project on conservative Latinos is that people have said, “Well, there’s really no such thing as ‘Latinos,’ so why aren’t they just conservatives?” And that’s one of the greatest challenges, but—and their response is frequently that, really, what is Latino, what we take to be Latino, is just a grouping of various national communities—Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Central Americans, Dominican Americans, etc.—and those groups, those communities tend to live in distinct regions, Mexican Americans primarily in the Southwest, although they’re all over the country; Cubans and Puerto Ricans along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, etc. So it really is a diverse community, and they have different issues that they care about, especially—just to name one example—U.S. foreign relations toward their home countries. Cuban American voters, their interests have been defined primarily with respect to the Castro regime in Cuba.
Puerto Ricans often vote according to what a candidate’s positions are on the territorial status of the island, language policies, etc. Will Puerto Rico remain a territory? Will it become an independent state? Will it become independent and something else?
Mexican Americans are concerned with border issues, immigration, citizenship, so it really is a diverse community, and the challenge for politicians is to figure out how to craft messages that either appeal to all Latinos as a national group or to very particular communities in South Florida, the Southwest, or New York, and that’s not always an easy or achievable thing to do.
8:15 Blackmon: Any of these generalizations are suspect, but traditionally Cubans and Mexicans, there has been tension between these two groups, the idea that, I think, a lot of Republicans during the primaries for 2016 thought, “Wow, we’ve got two Hispanic candidates, two prominent Hispanic candidates. This is going to make for big inroads into the Hispanic population.” But, in fact, Marco Rubio, who is genuinely, no doubt about it, of Cuban descent, but Ted Cruz is of a more complicated Cuban descent, really. You know, the real question that came up was that he was actually a Canadian citizen, and how Hispanic is a Cuban like Ted Cruz, and in both of their cases whether they really would resonate ah with groups of Mexican-heritage voters.
Blackmon: Yeah, you have a very real question, and that’s confusing, I think, uh, to Anglos.
Cadava: And, frankly, the extent to which a Latino candidate of a particular ethnic background would find success among other Latino groups, it’s—it’s an untested theory because there has been no general election candidate who is Latino.
9:22 Blackmon: And so we do fall—again, Anglos, I think, have some tendency to make assumptions about—that pure ethnic affinity will actually drive voters where, in the end—
Cadava: Right. Right.
Blackmon:—it tends—particularly if—if people don’t think a candidate is going to win or be able to do anything, then they have a tendency not to vote for him no matter what they look like.
Cadava: That’s right. That’s right.
9:41 Blackmon: But among this other group, which is a large group, we have these ethnic differences like you’ve been talking about that are regional, but you also have a tradition of conservatism among some Hispanics, particularly among these families that—that have been in what is now the United States for many generations longer than most Anglos, particularly in the Southwest, Arizona, New Mexico, real conservatism there. A very similar set of issues that matter to them including concern about unchecked immigration.
Cadava: Yeah,… what leads Latinos to conservatism varies across the country. Sometimes it’s foreign relations. In the case of Mexican Americans in the Southwest, I think it has much more to do with business connections and free trade between the United States and Mexico or, again, a family’s longstanding tenure on a plot of land where a rancher in a small community in Arizona or New Mexico would tend to have much more in common with other ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico and not so much with other Latinos in other areas.
And I think that’s why you saw some of the counterintuitive results in particular counties. The rural counties in New Mexico and Colorado and Arizona that—instead of moving towards Hillary Clinton in fact moved towards Donald Trump compared with Mitt Romney both in percentage and number terms. They tended to be the counties that have had the highest rates of unemployment over the past few years and have actually had population exoduses and are now smaller communities than they were four—four years ago. So I think, um, it’s a whole range of issues that leads to a Latino’s conservatism.
11:22 Blackmon: And it—but it obviously is also the case that even though candidate Trump, the remark about Mexican immigrants being rapists and however one wants to characterize that, but reference to that, the criminality of immigrants, uh, this discussion of the wall and sometimes in pretty coarse terms, that—where with African Americans, there has been a kind of unified response to inflammatory statements where you end up with—in places like Mississippi where you have a huge population of African Americans, Donald Trump ends up getting essentially no votes, you know, one percent or something of—of all African American votes, and across the country microscopic voting, you know.
And so there was a kind of bloc mentality that—in response to those things, but the inflammatory offenses by some reckonings as they related to Hispanics didn’t trigger that, didn’t turn into overarching issues that galvanized all of these folks.
Cadava: Yeah, I see. Latinos over the past 50 years have voted for the Republican candidate anywhere between 20 and 44 percent, so there’s a much greater range, whereas African Americans over that same time period only 10 percent pretty consistently have voted for, uh, the Republican candidate. So I do think that for a whole variety of reasons Latinos are more of a swing vote. Um, on the issue of immigration, I think that’s totally right. Immigration, border construction, even though undocumented, uh, people are not—undocumented immigrants are not voting in elections, most Latinos, Mexican Americans in particular who are voting in elections, have family members who are undocumented, know someone who’s undocumented. Sometimes they’re in mixed-status families where one of the two, um, people involved in a relationship has legal status and votes. One does not. So in those cases, the—you know the living conditions and experiences of the family are very much dependent on the one person’s legal status, because they’re able to vote and kind of advocate for their undocumented half. And so I think that’s why an issue like immigration or border control resonates so much more with Mexican Americans because if it doesn’t affect them directly it affects, um, someone in their family, someone they know, whereas, again, I’ve seen post-election interviews with Cubans who—Cuban Americans in Florida who will say that they absolutely support Donald Trump’s immigration policies because if you want to migrate you should come legally. They absolutely think that a border wall should be built because anything that would deter the, um, entrance of someone who has broken a crime or is about to break a crime if they haven’t yet crossed, uh, is desirable.
14:24 Blackmon: Immigrants from many parts of the world have some tendency—you know, if you get in a cab in Washington and you start a conversation with the driver and it’s someone from Nigeria or Kenya—because I try to go out of my way—maybe this is silly or naïve, but I—I make a point these days of—of introducing to obvious immigrants that I’m glad they’re in our country and that I think our country is strong as a result of them being here, and I—I just like to express that to people whenever I have the opportunity. But it’s striking how often, A, people are appreciative of that and then—but then, B, they go into kind of a scripted reaction to, you know, what they are expecting me to hear.
Cadava: That’s interesting. What is it?
Blackmon: It is that, “Oh, you’re right. And it’s terrible, some of the things that are being said, we’re just—we’re working hard, trying to do our part.” It’s sort of what they’re thinking I—I want to hear, I believe. But then, oftentimes, if it’s a long cab ride, (laughter) we get to the part of the conversation where they said, “Well, but, you know, actually, uh, I think there probably should be some controls on the border too. You know, I—I don’t think just any—I had to go through this, this, and this to get to this country. I don’t think anybody should be able to come in.” And it does come back to a very basic thing that, you know, there isn’t anything intrinsically evil about a country, uh, securing its border. Certainly any presumption that every immigrant to the United States would be against a wall at the Mexican border is a—is a fallacious assumption.
Cadava: Yeah, no, I agree that, uh, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to protect your borders. I think the open-border movement has been very mischaracterized.
I think, I— I take—I take the liberal position to be not that they want the walls thrown open to let floods of people come across. I think they want the work that immigrants do recognized. I think they want, um, border enforcement to be more humane than it is and to actually prioritize some of the things like keeping families together that American immigration policy has long prioritized. So I think the—you know, the open-border movement has been—or if it’s a movement. I don’t even know if it’s a movement, but, um, the open-border position has been really mischaracterized. The other thing while you were talking I was reminded of is the immigration historian Matt Jacobson who has said that, um, immigration history is kind of one of our biggest failures of national memory because it’s like each generation of immigrants forgets that, uh, their families also immigrated to the United States.
So, um, it reminds me of that where, you know, each generation of immigrants will somehow inherently recognize that immigrants are here largely to do good, but they also develop a story about how they’ve followed all the rules, have assimilated, have come, um, have come legally, and have forgotten a lot of the struggles that they themselves or their own families went through in order to get here.
17:28 Blackmon: Your book is about the—you know, this long history of a particular place on the border, and it is a—a pretty fascinating way to look at this whole issue and how one would assume, particularly sitting here or anywhere far, far away from that boundary between the U.S. and Mexico that—that there’s this kind of war going on and that everybody who’s a legal American citizen or on the American side is hostile and antagonistic to everybody on the other side, and the folks on the other side are just trying to slip past them at any moment, when, in reality, there’s this long history, for the most part, amicable relations, lots of economic interdependence, lots of movement back and forth across the border for many, many decades. And then, the Bracero program from the 1940s to relatively recent times that legally authorized lots of Mexican workers to come in and out of the United States.
So there’s this long history of a pretty constructive relationship at the border that people are to some degree still a part of and certainly still remember very well.
Cadava: Absolutely. It’s more a continuum of economic interdependence and cooperation and mutual relations that gets interrupted at moments of conflict and war. I think—the border does militarize in World War I. It’s when you see the, um, construction of fences for the first time. In the 1970s, it’s when you see—when there’s an economic depression, when the numbers of undocumented immigrants is spiking, that’s when you see calls for the construction of steel barriers.
That’s when some of the first steel barriers get constructed. Now, you know, eight years after the Great Recession, you similarly see renewed nativist, uh, sentiments and calls for the construction of a border wall, but I think that—it’s really those moments of conflict or following conflict and economic decline that you see these calls for constructions of border walls and immigration enforcement. But the continuum is cooperation and a back-and-forth flow, and I think that’s what border—more than anything else I think, um, the vast majority of border residents get—are most concerned about interrupting that historical flow, an ongoing flow between the United States and Mexico much more than they’re worried about undocumented immigration or crime or anything like that.
20:00 Blackmon: I mean, what happened? That’s what I’m trying to get a sense of. Is it just that so many people came across the border, and it really did begin to have economic impact, or what?
Cadava: In a real way, Mexicans have always been constructed as a threat or as a mongrel race that would retake the Southwest and introduce Catholicism or, um, you know, any kinds of—any number of things, so they were “greasers.” They were “wetbacks,” so there’s that long history of Mexicans being constructed as threats. There’s a much more recent history of economic decline in the Rust Belt and rising undocumented immigration that has intensified the construction of Mexican immigrants and Mexico in general, because it’s—you know, the construction of maquiladoras and things like that is a real immediate threat—
20:51 Blackmon: The factories across the border in Mexico. Right.
Cadava: Yeah, maquiladoras, sorry, cross-border factories that, um, give international companies incentives to produce goods there because of favorable tax arrangements and things like that.
So I think that in some ways what you’re witnessing, is just the long-term result of those new kind of immigration patterns and economic arrangements between the United States and Mexico that have been playing out for the last forty years, so it’s kind of like the tipping of a seesaw in some ways. The—the frustration and disgruntlement that many working-class whites have felt in the Midwest has been there for some 40 years, but this year it kind of boiled over.
21:34 Blackmon: You also get the strong sense that, uh, Latinos and Hispanics of whatever cohort they come from over time there has been a real reluctance to be—to go along with a reception of them as an aggrieved party or as a dispossessed minority. They really have not wanted to be seen as “victims.” This is probably one reason why African Americans and Hispanics haven’t created an alliance of sorts because the Hispanics oftentimes didn’t like the kind of narrative that was pursued by African Americans. I mean, in my life, I grew up in Mississippi, but one branch of my family was from the Rio Grande Valley, and so, uh, we had lots of connectivity to the Valley, as everybody called it, but it was all white farmers, Anglo farmers, relatively poor, but some connection particularly during some periods of time with a lot of, uh, very poor Mexican workers in the valley as well. But for me, personally, I grew up in a place in Mississippi where there were no Hispanics. You know, I—I have no recollection through most of my childhood of ever seeing a person that I would have identified—uh, I’m sure that I did, but then the first time that I was aware of actually someone who was introduced to me as being Mexican was actually on a visit to another branch of the family in Louisianan, right on the Texas state line. And this unit of the family had just come back from the Valley and had brought with them two Mexican workers who were going to work on their farm in Louisiana. It was a very—very new thing, and I—I was about 10 years old at the time, so this was 40 years ago. Um, and I asked, “How did this—you know, well, how did this happen? And one of my cousins a little older than me said, “Oh, well, we bought them.” That was the line: “We bought them.”
Blackmon: Now, what he meant was they had—they had paid a labor agent a certain amount of money to acquire them, and then they had agreed that they then would—
Cadava: Work a certain period of time.
Blackmon:—would get paid nothing, you know, until they were paid back. But—but I remember even then of this idea that—
Blackmon: “Wow, I didn’t know that could happen—that that could happen.” Let me ask you a last question. Let’s just assume in good faith—first, I’ll preface this by saying I recently wrote an essay in which I suggested that President Trump could in fact, contrary to lots of expectations, be something of a pioneer on race, and I was really talking about black-white, but that he actually has an opportunity if he were veer toward some of the things he said about race that were on the more optimistic side, constructive side, that he could be—he’s actually the person who could, uh, help lower-income white Americans see that they share some interests with lower-income African Americans and that there’s actually an opportunity for him on that. Now, a lot of people, a lot of liberals and others have said that—that I’m out of my mind to have suggested such a thing, but—but so let’s just, operating on an assumption in good faith on the President—on the part of President Trump, if you—if he called you up after watching this appearance on American Forum and said, “Why don’t you come in and tell me what I ought to do, Mr. Cadava, Professor Cadava?” what would you say if you had 10 minutes with—or even three minutes with President Trump? What would you say?
Cadava: I would caution him against believing that just because he won this election with a particular message that supported—at least optically supported the white working class in the Midwest or wherever, that that’s not going to be the driving force of politics going forward, I think. So I would tell him to continue to pay attention and work to improve, um, his relations with Latinos.
Blackmon: Gerry Cadava, thanks for joining us.
Cadava: Thank you, Doug.
Blackmon: You’ve been watching American Forum, where for 30 minutes every week on PBS stations all across the country we discuss and debate national issues in a constructive, no-yelling atmosphere. You can watch us on your local PBS affiliate or to join our ongoing conversation look for American Forum on the Miller Center Facebook page, visit our new website at MillerCenter.org, or follow us on Twitter. My handle is @douglasblackmon. Geraldo Cadava is @gerry_cadava, just the way you see it there on your screen. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next week. (applause)