Monday, April 12, 2004

Jorge Castaneda Out of Touch: US Rolling Out Red Carpet to Mexicans

Jorge Castaneda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico and a declared candidate for the Mexican presidency, recently published an editorial piece in the Houston Chronicle offering a summary of the current state of the Mexican American community in the United States. Mr. Castaneda outlines several differences between Mexican immigration and other US immigrant waves over the past century. Several distinct differences are highlighted, notably:

1) This is the largest wave of immigration in the United States history
2) This is the first wave from a country with a large border with the United States
3) This wave is characterized by a much higher percentage of illegal immigrants
4) Mexican immigrants differ from prior ethnic groups in that they, in general, are working to retain their national and cultural identity.
5) Mexicans are subject to far greater discrimination than previous generations of migrants. As a result, Mexican Americans face such large obstacles to successfully assimilating into US society that the only answer is to legalize all illegal Mexicans living in the US.

Well, 4 out of 5 ain't bad. Mr. Castaneda's assertion that Mexicans are subject to more racisim would be laughable if not for the underlying political motives of his intent and for the harm his rhetoric inflicts on Mexican Americans. Summarizing his logic, it's clear that the bulk of Mexican American problems are the fault of US policy and US citizens. Blame congress, blame your local governing bodies, blame George Bush, blame racist US citizens, but whatever you do, do not take any personal responsibility for your socio-economic status. This seems to be Mr. Castaneda's message to Mexican Americans.

Perhaps Mr. Castaneda could learn a thing or two by studying history, and comparing the plight of Irish, Polish, Italians, and Viet Namese who have migrated to the US over the past 150 years. Irish immigrants were notoriously treated as second-class citizens. In the late 1800's, the American Party (which nominated Millard Filmore for the presidency) was formed with a core tenet that no foreign born person nor any Roman Catholic ever be nominated as a candidate. In the early 1900's, employers were public in communicating their policy: "Irish need not apply". Viet Namese immigrants faced personal persecutions from a US population who, in the mid-70's, was wary if not outright suspicious of Viet Namese in the wake of the Viet Nam war. Italian immigrants, like the Irish, faced outward discrimination. First generation Italians were expected to assimilate into the American culture, and as a result of their conservative behavior (burying cash as opposed to depositing in banks), the failure of the first generation to master English, and their membership in the Roman Catholic Church, Italians were generally mis-trusted and viewed as 'backward'. As evidence, read this excerpt from a study by the US Congress, published in 1911:

" The children hear only Italian spoken in the colony in the home, and their only opportunity to learn English is at school. The Poles, Slovaks, and Magyars are almost as backward as South Italians".

Of course this one comment does not prove widescale racism in the US government, but it's a stark reminder that attitudes towards immigrants have changed remarkably over the past 2 generations.

Contrast the plight of the Irish, Viet Namese, and Italians with modern day Mexicans. At present, the United States has done everything to nurture and protect Mexican Americans short of rolling out a big red welcome mat across the Rio Grande river. Witness the overwhelming number of ATMs, automated phone support systems, instructions on consumer goods, etc. which offer the option of communicating in Spanish. Witness the number of minority scholarships available to Mexican Americans today. Witness the federal programs which cater to Mexican owned businesses. Witness the public school offerings for 'English as a Second Language' (ESL) students. As it stands today, legal Mexican immigrants not only have far more opportunities to succeed economically than their predecessors from Europe, they are provided more advantages than US born citizens as a result of federal programs which favor minorities. And Mexican Americans still want more?

With respect to social challenges faced by immigrants today, Mr. Castaneda's assertion that Mexicans face far greater discrimination than previous immigrant groups is absurd. Italians, Poles, Irish, etc. did not benefit from the current policies which cater to minority groups. They did not arrive in a nation already populated by millions of their fellow nationals. Given the costs to our society of providing dual language services, funding minority scholarships, providing ESL programs, and giving preference to Mexican owned businesses, Mr. Castaneda claims of US discrimination against Mexicans are insulting to every US taxpayer.

It is my sincere hope that Mexican Americans not subscribe to Mr. Castaneda's "we are victims" propoganda. Rather, Mexican Americans should follow the lead of Italians, Irish, Poles, and Viet Namese who legally came to this country before them and learned the English language, invested in home ownership, built businesses, etc. In short, previous immigrants came to America to become English speaking Americans, and they did it without the huge cultural "safety net" the United States has provided Mexican Americans. Unless Mexican Americans take ownership for becoming part of a united, prosperous America, another generation will be destined to lower class standards living in an isolated sub-culture.

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