by José de la Isla
HOUSTON — With the U.S. Senate’s refusal to act on an immigration reform bill this year, the old Chinese definition of “crisis” seems appropriate. “Crisis” in translation is generally held to mean “danger” and “opportunity.”
The danger is quite obvious. The National Conference of State Legislators reported in April that nearly 1,200 pieces of immigration legislation had already been introduced at the state level this year, more than double last year’s total. By year’s end, possibly every state in the union will be looking at “remedies” to restrict activity and movements by immigrants.
Such actions may appease assorted nativists and others who are just plain frustrated by federal inaction, but it’s a long way from a solution. It comes with plentiful “shoot-yourself-in-the-foot” dangers.
Immigrants and their children will account for all U.S. work-force growth between 2010 and 2030. As an example, Central Florida’s economic growth is tied to its fast-growing Hispanic population (many of them immigrants).
Many countries with homogeneous populations and little immigration (such as Germany, Italy and Japan) don’t grow as fast economically as other developed countries. The same is true of regions within the United States.
Particularly disturbing here are the values and public attitudes that restrictive measures engender. Even if and when federal immigration reform comes about, ethnic-conflict jargon will have set up xenophobic, polarizing mindsets that could last generations and take decades to overcome.
Restrictive policies will contribute to making a nation that’s already gripped with fear about terrorism reach a new level of suspicion concerning the people within it. Some current proposals compete with the Jim Crow law of segregation days. It’s like the ’50s all over again.
A polarized nation led by a large but shrinking, grumpy white population will emerge as Hispanics become 17 percent of its people by 2020 and 24 percent by 2050.
It’s still a long while before 2009, when hopefully a new Congress will act responsibly in the national interest. Meanwhile, local “reforms” based on emotion can cripple law-abiding working families, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
Now, the opportunities are much less visual, hidden behind dismal, disconcerting statistics in Mexico.
Mexicans make up roughly 60 percent of the unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Much of our immigration pull stems from the huge discrepancy in the standards of living between us and our neighboring countries. It’s one of the widest in the world.
But anyone who thinks emigration is good for Mexico is mistaken. It only makes things worse. In June, the United Nations Program for Development reported the main contributor is “inequality and not poverty.”
The program’s Thierry Lemaresquier points out it is neither the richest nor the poorest who leave. Instead it is those in the middle. This is precisely the group that Mexico most needs for its own development.
That correlates with another recent revelation. Quoted in the Mexico City daily El Universal, Mexico’s Secretary of the Public Interest (Función Pública) stated that in the last five years, 35 percent of potential direct foreign investments decided against entering Mexico because of the perception of the country’s corruption and lack of transparency.
The vicious cycle is one that pushes people out and discourages investment within. It is a formula for slow growth and stagnation — consequently more emigration.
Between now and 2009 is a good time for inter-parliamentary commissions, immigrant hometown associations, Latino chambers of commerce, civic groups and transnational interests to demand that Mexico clean up its act.
President Felipe Calderón and the parties that make up Mexico’s Congress need to hear it from every direction. It’s a better solution than the ludicrous convulsion taking place in the United States, stemming from our own lack of reform.
So that’s the danger and the opportunity. Just as in the Chinese word for “crisis.”
[José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.]© 2007