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Getting Emotional About Mexicans

The thing that stands out in the debate on Mexican immigration is its emotional content, and the exchange on Cato Unbound is no exception. A lot of people are very upset about the issue—angry, fearful, resentful, suspicious, and often vindictive. The raw emotion on display has less to do with the management of labor flows between two friendly trading nations than with Americans’ own sense of vulnerability and insecurity. And truth be told, Americans have a lot to worry about.

Feelings of economic insecurity are to be expected in a country where inequalities of income and wealth are at unprecedented levels, public services are steadily eroding, infrastructure is deteriorating, both consumers and the federal government have accumulated record debt, and there is not much of a safety net to catch you if you fall. Feelings of physical insecurity are likewise natural in an age of rising terrorism, religious extremism, and economic polarization between nations, and when mother nature herself seems bent on exacting revenge for the build-up of CO2 and other pollutants in the atmosphere.

These problems are very real and very big, and our leaders in government have done very little to address them. The War in Iraq to date has simply bred more terror and hatred, federal spending continues to spiral out of control, the dollar is weakening globally, inequality proceeds upward, global temperatures shift steadily upward, and ideologies—religious, political, and cultural—continue to polarize society domestically and internationally. Government seems paralyzed and unable to confront daunting issues such as globalization, fundamentalism, fossil fuel depletion, and terrorism. Likewise, individual Americans have a hard time wrapping their heads around such monumental issues.

In this context, the Mexico-U.S. border assumes importance as a symbol of America’s loss of control and vulnerability, and Mexican immigration becomes an issue in which people pour out their anguish over the precarious state of the nation and their control over their lives within it. Mexicans, of course, are not responsible for America’s rising inequality and soaring debt, and they have little to with fundamentalism, terrorism, global warming, or fossil fuel depletion.

But that is beside the point. Symbolically, the border and the human traffic across it has acquired great symbolic value, and feckless politicians unable to face the real problems in the world have a self-interest in fanning the perception of Mexico and Mexicans as threatening aliens and dangerous invaders bent on destroying our culture, language, and way of life, and the average citizen finds it much easier to focus on an enemy with a face (and a brown one at that) rather than amorphous problems such as debt, inequality, terror, ideology, and extremism. Mexican immigration has become the lightening rod and Mexican immigrants the scapegoat for all that is fearful and threatening in the world today.

Emotional displacement, ethnic scare-mongering, and the scapegoating of immigrants are nothing new in American history. But they don’t solve our problems, and in the case of Mexican immigration they make them worse. Our immigration and border policies with respect to Mexico may have served the political purpose of diverting attention away from other pressing issues and giving citizens a concrete focus for their fears and insecurities, but they have completely backfired in their efforts to reduce migration to the United States. In my research I have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the militarization of the border did not lower the rate of in-migration so much as reduce the rate of return migration, and that it is the growing imbalance between rates of in- and out-migration that is causing the unprecedented growth of the Mexican population within the United States and costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

If there is one thing we have learned from cognitive neuroscience in the past few years it is that the brain has two components—one emotional and one rational—with the emotional brain generally having the upper hand in cognition. In fact, it proves to be fairly easy to mobilize the emotional centers of the brain so as to overwhelm its rational faculties, and this is what has happened in the debate on immigration. Many people see me as an apologist for an alien invasion, but if they would just put aside their emotions for a minute, look at my research, and listen to what I have to say, they will discover that what I am really proposing are policies that will reduce the number of Mexicans settling in the United States, limit long-term growth of the undocumented population, lower costs to U.S. taxpayers, improve wages and working conditions for American workers, and promote more rapid economic growth and development one of our two closest neighbors and trading partners.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Mexicans in America by Richard Rodriguez

    In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • Richard Rodriguez’s Stream of Consciousness by Victor Davis Hanson

    Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • Seeing Mexican Immigration Clearly by Douglas S. Massey

    In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • The Intergenerational Assimilation of Mexican Americans by Stephen J. Trejo

    How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.

The Conversation