Monday, April 6, 2009


Mexico Under Siege


Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Will Rise; Fearful Mexicans Will Cling to the U.S.

Mexico's drug war is bound to have a profound effect on the lives of
Mexican immigrants in the United States. On the one hand, the image
of Mexico's chaos as a spreading contagion most likely will
strengthen the hand of anti-immigrant forces. On the other, as
Mexican newcomers look back at their increasingly dangerous homeland,
they will -- consciously or unconsciously -- set down deeper roots in
the United States.

This newspaper routinely publishes an astounding statistic: Over the
last 15 months in Mexico, as the government has cracked down on drug
cartels, 7,000 Mexicans have been killed. The carnage has begun to
spill over the border. There've been brazen "home invasions" on
Tucson's west side. Kidnappings in Phoenix. The cartels pursued the
mayor of Ciudad Juarez across the border into El Paso, where he and
his family have sought refuge.

Then, two weeks ago, CNN brought such stories much closer to home for
most Americans. As part of the news package titled "Mayhem in
Mexico," CNN featured an Anglo couple, Chris and Debra Hall, and
their two children, who were robbed and threatened in Baja by masked
gunmen. Traumatized, the Halls recalled the harrowing incident over
and over, as the piece replayed for days. Though Chris and Debra have
been vacationing in Mexico since they were teenagers, they vowed
never to go back. The CNN reporter ended the story on an ominous
note: "The country they loved, stolen from them in the middle of the
night on a Mexican highway."

The terror and the truth of the Halls' experience isn't in doubt, and
it's a cautionary tale worth telling. But CNN's sharply defined
middle-American angle on Mexico's violence also carried with it an
uh-oh factor. When the American majority starts to see itself as the
primary victim of Mexican chaos, it can unleash outsized fears and
overreactions against a minority. Even in the best of times, Mexico
can easily slip into a menacing role in the American mind. For
generations, sailors, soldiers and teenagers would cross the border
to break rules they wouldn't dare bend at home. It isn't surprising
that the place next door that so many Americans reserve for illicit
fun would loom large as a source of social problems and boogeyman evil.

Nearly a century ago, during its revolution, Mexico's social and
political problems hopped the border in much the same way they are
now -- real incidents, easily magnified to chilling effect. Back
then, what Americans feared most from their southern neighbor was
that its political radicalism would seep northward. In 1915, the
Chicago Tribune came close to predicting a race war in the Southwest.
"Mexican anarchy," its editorial board warned, "now thrusts its red
hand across our border and with an insane insolence attempts to visit
upon American citizens in their homes the destruction it has wreaked
upon American persons and property abroad."

In fact, a year later, Pancho Villa, angry at the U.S. for
recognizing the government of his rival, Venustiano Carranza, led a
500-man attack on the border town of Columbus, N.M. Seven hundred
miles away in Los Angeles, the LAPD reacted to the news by announcing
that no guns or liquor would be sold to Mexicans for fear they would
revolt. The chief of police tripled the patrol of the heavily Mexican
district known as Sonoratown. Applauding the move, the Los Angeles
Times, which estimated that at least 10% of the city's 35,000
Mexicans were "rabid sympathizers with the outlaw, Villa," warned
that "the firebrands ... must be watched and snuffed out."

Mexico's anguish now will undoubtedly add fuel to the U.S.
anti-immigrant fire, breathing new life into nativism in general and
anti-Mexican sentiment in particular. Badly needed immigration reform
-- already a third rail of U.S. politics, and made even more
politically dangerous because of the economy's meltdown -- will get
further buried under new American fears. It's all too easy to
identify all immigrants with the worst of the problems of the nation they left.

Ironically, the drug war fallout will also inevitably strengthen the
ties of those immigrants to their current home. I know many Mexicans
and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles who are now reluctant to even
visit Tijuana for fear of getting kidnapped or caught in the
crossfire. The violence back home means that more immigrants will
simply feel safer in the United States.

For more than a century, millions of Mexican migrants came to the
U.S. harboring dreams of making money and returning home, and many
did just that. Now, however, more and more Mexican families will be
obliged to acknowledge that their future is here -- and only here.

The Halls aren't the only ones to have a country they love stolen from them.

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