Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Population and Politics in North America: Mexico

A place I have never visited and thought I had no real connection to.  Last night I parsed my memories and realized that isn't true at all.  We have at least one extended family member who went south to Baja a few years ago and decided to stay and retire.  I also know folks from my childhood in the U.S. who regularly went down for seasonal work in the tourist business in Puerta Vallarta.  Finally, one of my oldest friends in Paris, a long-term Mexican resident of France, decided to return home to Mexico City just last year and is sending regular updates on Facebook. Which just goes to show you (and remind me) that we can wallow in the narcissism of difference and deny our connections to people, places and things.  Or we can perform what Amin Maalouf called an "examen d'identité" (an examination of identity) and find the things that link us to many places and many people.
Grâce a chacune de mes appartenances, prise séparément, j'ai une certaine parenté avec un grand nombre de mes semblables; grâce aux memes critères, pris tous ensemble, j'ai mon identité propre, qui ne se confond avec aucune autre.
Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other.


Mexico sits in the southern end of North America and has borders with three other countries:  Guatemala, Belize and the United States.  Like the U.S. and Canada it was a European settler colony but, unlike the other two which were primarily under the control of the British and French, Mexico was claimed and conquered by the Spanish Empire.  When the conquistadores arrived the area had already been the home of several ancient civilizations:  Olmecs, Mayas, Aztecs and others.   The Spanish controlled this territory and a fair amount of what is now the United States until Mexico achieved independence in 1810.  At that time Mexican territory extended way beyond its present border into what is today the U.S. and included the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.  These territories were ceded to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American War under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848).  A large number of Mexican settlers in those areas were left behind when the border shifted and may have been "involuntary Americans."  Under the treaty these settlers had the choice of remaining where they were or being resettled in Mexican territory.  According to Alexandra Delano in Mexico and its Diaspora in the United States, 75,000 of the 100,000 Mexican settlers in that territory remained after the borders were fixed but there's real question about how well informed these people were about their options at the time.  In any case, this is an important historical fact that puts some of the debates about the presence of Mexicans in the American Southwest into perspective since their settlement preceded American expansion into the area.   They were there first (or second, if you prefer, after the indigenous people).

Today Mexico is the 12th largest country in the world in terms of land mass and it's the 11th largest in terms of population (right behind Japan) with 114 million people in 2011.  Population density is high compared to other North American countries at 52 people per square kilometer (much higher than Canada, Greenland or the U.S.) but not very high compared to Europe.  It is a young country - the median age is 27 years (37 years in the U.S. and 41 years in Canada).  The fertility rate is above replacement but not terribly high - 2.29 children per woman - as of 2011. The ethnic composition is different from other parts of North America - a lot more mixing of the indigenous and settler populations.  Index Mundi gives this breakdown:  "mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish) 60%, Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian 30%, white 9%, other 1%."   

Like Greenland it has more people leaving than coming in.  The net migration rate as of 2011 was -3.24 migrant(s)/1,000 population.  But if you look at this number compared to past years, you'll see that the net migration rate peaked in 2004 at -4.87 and has been dropping ever since (even before the recession).  Some of this certainly is a result of tighter border controls by the U.S. post-911 but the other side of the story is liberalization of the economy,  NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and more economic opportunity which tends to slow emigration.  This chart (again from Index Mundi) shows Mexico with a above 5% real growth in GDP compared to Canada at 3% and the U.S. coming in last with under 3%.  In fact it's worth looking at that world map and going from north to south and clicking on each country in both North and South America.  Growth seems to just get better and better as you move south with Argentina and Brazil at 7.5.   Another interesting indicator is the unemployment rate.  In 2011 the Mexican unemployment rate was about 5% - the U.S. rate was over 8% and Canada was hovering around 7% as of March 2012 .  I'm not an economist or a statistician and I can't vouch for the veracity of these numbers but clearly Mexico is not doing too badly these days compared to its northern neighbors.

In the last post about the U.S. I talked about Mexican immigration to the U.S. and mentioned the political fallout on the American domestic politics related to that.  Let's turn the tables and talk more about it from the perspective of Mexico which remains one of the top sending countries to the U.S. and has a huge diaspora there.  The numbers vary but it's safe to say that over 90% of migrants from Mexico move north and that isn't something that started yesterday.  This migration path has a long history and both countries have had an interest in keeping it going and not necessarily trying to control it too much.  On the U.S. side industry and agriculture want this labor and they have always fought against bureaucracy or any formal arrangement that would prevent them from getting it "just in time."

Even when there was agreement between the countries (Bracero program from 1942 through 1964) there was still a lot of informal migration and border-hopping.  On Mexico's side this migration was not necessarily a bad thing since it meant opportunity for its people and remittances for the home country.  At different points in the history of both countries it's become a political issue in domestic politics and a source of contention between them at the international level.  When Mexicans in the U.S. have been subjected to discriminatory treatment and poor working conditions in the U.S.,  the people of Mexico have put political pressure on the Mexican government to do something about it.  Historically, the Mexican government tried with varying degrees of success in different eras to protect its people abroad without antagonizing its neighbor and without getting involved in U.S. politics.  

That was the situation up until the 1990's when Mexico decided to redefine the nation to include its "domestic abroad."  Mexico began programs to forge closer ties with its diaspora:   the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad was created in 1990 within the Secretariat for Foreign Affairs.  A decade later other institutions were established to formalize the relationship between the homeland and emigrants:  the National Council for Mexican Communities Abroad and the Institute for Mexicans Abroad. In 1998 Mexico changed its citizenship laws to allow dual citizenship and just before the 2006 presidential election, Mexicans abroad were given the right to vote in national elections.  The Mexican government maintains an extraordinary number of consulates in the U.S. and started expanding services to its citizens there.  And finally they have more and willing to tangle with the U.S. over how its citizens are being treated.  Call it a strength or a weakness but in the U.S. political power is shared by the Federal government, the fifty states, and thousands of counties and cities and the Mexican government has established relationships with many of these entities at all levels.  In addition the list of American politicians of Mexican descent is quite large and growing.

Today Mexico is even looking toward international organizations like the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations and NGO's to put pressure on the U.S. when it feels that the U.S. is not being respectful of the human rights of its people.  In 2004 Mexico won a case that was before the ICJ (called the Avena Case) which concerned 52 Mexican nationals that were tried and charged with the death penalty.  Mexico claimed that their right to due process and consular protection under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relation was violated.  The ICJ agreed and ruled against the U.S.  It did not stand up in U.S. court but, let's face it, the U.S. looked terrible and it was an important moral victory for Mexico.  Then in 2006 Mexico sent a direct message to the American government and the people with the diffusion of a document called Mexico and the Migration Phenomenon.  It was very clear statement of how Mexico viewed U.S.- Mexico migration and offered some solutions (or at least a basis for negotiation).

All of the above seems to make Americans very nervous.  The political rhetoric in the ramp-up to the 2012 presidential election is almost quaint in the sense that it seems to be behind the times.  There is much talk of electric fences and the like to keep Mexicans out.  The Pew Research Center reported recently that "Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less."  With massive deportation of undocumented migrants (400,000 people in 2011 alone) by the Obama administration, the number of "illegals" is dropping steadily and Pew reports that of those deported more and more are saying that they now prefer to stay in Mexico.  None of this is having a calming effect - on the contrary some of the rhetoric on the U.S. is incredibly inflammatory and hostile with an eye toward whipping up public sentiment in the U.S. for a solution to a "problem" that may be solving itself.  And it surely doesn't mean less immigration to the U.S., it just means that the immigrants will come from other places like Asia.  For the future much depends on economic growth in both countries, demographic changes, trade, need for labor and immigration policies in the U.S. and Canada (Did you know that Quebec actually has an immigration office in Mexico?) 

A situation to watch closely and the Migration Policy Institute is doing just that.  For the most up to date reports take a lot at their website.  For more information about the Mexican diaspora in general and its history in the U.S. I really recommend the book I cited earlier in this post: Alexandra Delano's Mexico and its Diaspora in the United States.  This is emigration as viewed from the sending country perspective.

And now I see that the sun is out so I'm going to leave my virtual tour of North America and spend the rest of the day enjoying my country of residence here in Europe.   Bonne journée à tous!

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