The abrupt resignation in mid-March of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico—just as President Barack Obama was embarking on a five-day friendship mission to Latin America—is a stark example of the delicate, often irascible bilateral relationship. A diplomatic cable unearthed by WikiLeaks, in which Ambassador Carlos Pascual characterized Mexican security forces as ineffective and riddled with infighting, had ignited President Felipe Calderón’s wrath.
Despite public assertions that U.S.–Mexico ties are stronger than ever, the Pascual affair exposed the underside of a thorny bilateral relationship that unfolds on multiple fronts such as the drug war, border security, trade, and migration—each with different political fault lines.
That a Mexican president would dare to openly excoriate a sitting ambassador and publicly criticize the U.S. government reflects—in part—Mexico’s increased capacity to leverage the inherent asymmetry with its powerful northern neighbor since 1980. It appears that Mexico has found its voice in negotiating with the United States. At least that is what Alexandra Délano argues in Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration since 1848.
Délano, an assistant professor of global studies at The New School in New York City, completed her book well before the Pascual affair, but she bases her conclusion on an analysis of U.S.-bound migration over the past 160 years, which she uses to chronicle the evolution of the relationship and argue that U.S.-bound migration is no longer simply a safety valve for Mexican underemployment. Focusing on emigration policies, she methodically documents how Mexico changed its posture toward the exodus of its citizens from indifference—dubbed “the policy of having no policy” by Manuel Garcia y Griego—to strategic, proactive engagement.
Demography is not destiny, but it can serve as a powerful resource to advance geopolitical agendas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Mexican origin ballooned from 9 million to nearly 32 million between 1980 and 2010. The Mexican-born population increased fivefold during this period, from 2.2 million to 11.5 million, and witnessed an unprecedented geographic dispersal beyond the traditional southwestern states.
Délano explains how Mexico changed its relationship with its powerful neighbor to the north to better serve its political and economic interests at home and abroad. But the story is more nuanced as it unfolds against the backdrop of globalization, bilateral economic interdependence and the rise of international terrorism.
To frame her argument, Délano describes the labor flows between Mexico and the U.S. in early chapters that cover two key periods: 1848–1942, when the United States called all the shots; and 1942–1982, a time of sporadic and lopsided bilateralism that mainly served U.S. economic interests. Because it exposed the depth of U.S. economic interests south of the Rio Grande, Délano claims that the 1982 economic crisis in Mexico was a turning point in the bilateral agenda, but she argues that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was even more significant, despite or perhaps because “Mexico agreed to avoid the issue [of migration] in the process of negotiation and ratification of the free trade agreement.”
The presumption that NAFTA would automatically stabilize migration flows between two countries with huge wage differentials ignored deep social networks and economic ties. Uncoupling migration policy from the broader bilateral agenda was an important step in Mexico’s strategy to reach out to the Mexican-origin population, targeting both the Mexican expatriate communities and the Mexican-American population.
The migration story during these periods is known mainly from the U.S. perspective. Délano deftly reframes it through the lens of emigration to identify the economic and social circumstances that facilitated Mexico’s policy shift from benign neglect to strategic engagement of its nationals living north of the border.
Relying on primary and secondary sources, she elaborates how Mexico shifted from passive to proactive emigration policies. Several circumstances, she argues, strengthened Mexico’s ability to align the reality of emigration with its economic interests: the sheer size and diversity of the Mexican expatriate community; the volume of remittances; internal pressure to protect nationals living abroad; and Mexico’s transition in 2000 from single-party rule to free democratic elections.
Délano concludes that Mexico found its new voice through direct engagement with the expatriate community; the creation and expansion of institutions to serve Mexicans living in the U.S.; and public positions in defense of migrants’ rights. “In the past 20 years, and more emphatically since 2000, Mexico reversed a long history in which its migration policy consisted of softly promoting migrants’ return, helping them maintain their ties to the home country through contacts between community organizations and consulates, and providing protection as well as support in crisis situations,” she notes. The activism of Mexican consulates transcended conventional legal support and cultural programs to include programs for financial literacy and legislation that enabled nationals living abroad to vote in federal elections.
Some concrete examples: the expansion of consular offices and the sponsorship of outreach activities in the U.S.; direct engagement with migrant organizations abroad to promote investment in Mexico; strategic enlistment of cooperation from prominent Mexican-American organizations; enactment of the dual nationality policy in 1996; and creation of the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior (IME). Also, in 2002, the Mexican government—in an effort to facilitate identification of its citizens—released a secure version of its consular identification card, the Matricula Consular, which is issued to Mexicans living abroad who lack a passport. Délano notes the success of the Matricula Consular: “As a result of the Mexican government’s lobbying efforts, by the end of 2006 more than 400 financial institutions, 390 cities, 170 counties, and 1,200 police departments considered that the document was safe and facilitated the identification of residents in their localities.”
The book marshals compelling evidence that Mexico has strengthened its bargaining position in the bilateral relationship with respect to emigration policies. But Délano acknowledges that asymmetry persists. This is most starkly evident in its failure to negotiate a comprehensive migration agreement that included a legalization program; an exemption from the annual country limit for visas; an expanded temporary worker program; enhanced border security; and economic development initiatives targeted to key sending regions. Post 9/11, the U.S. government recast immigration as a security issue, and in 2006 authorized legislation to extend a fence along the U.S.–Mexico border and expand Border Patrol operations.
Rather than creating more symmetry in the bilateral migration agenda, the U.S. has militarized the border and merged its migration and national security policies. The unprecedented geographic dispersal of Mexico’s expatriate community has further complicated its emigration policy agenda, thanks to the surge of anti-immigrant policies at state and local levels in response to stalled immigration reform in the United States.
Délano conducted fieldwork in eight Mexican consulates and interviewed 50 members of IME. She also interviewed nine Mexican government officials and four members of prominent U.S. migration organizations. Her focus on emigration policy from a Mexican perspective may warrant an emphasis on key Mexican stakeholders. However, in light of the Pascual resignation, it would have been helpful to solicit the perspectives of prior ambassadors to Mexico during the period that Mexican emigration policies evolved. John D. Negroponte (1989–1993), James R. Jones (1993–1997) and Antonio Garza (2002–2009) could have added a bilateral perspective to Délano’s narrative.
It is not clear that diaspora is an appropriate term to characterize the Mexican exodus to the United States. Délano chose the term “to reflect characteristics of the Mexican experience that are sometimes overlooked, including the[…]complex transnational identities and relationships that migrants and their organizations have developed with their home country.” Despite its title cachet, this is an academic question about which scholars disagree. The theoretical framing of Délano’s thesis as a multilevel analysis also exaggerates claims of uniqueness and at times diffuses attention from the story line.
Still, Mexico and Its Diaspora offers a refreshing perspective in a well-trodden field and raises broader questions about the extent and conditions under which originating states can manage migration to maximize benefits for both domestic and expatriate citizens.