Other Departments -- November 1995
It is refreshing to see a Latin American intellectual looking inward to explain the causes of social distress and injustice, as does Jorge Castañeda in "Ferocious Differences" (July Atlantic). It is encouraging to see a Latin American intellectual confront culture as a central factor in explaining the vast gap in human well-being that separates Canada and the United States from Latin America. One wonders how much that gap might have been narrowed had Latin American intellectuals --Castañeda prominent among them--and U.S. intellectuals not spent the past several decades contriving specious theories that blamed Latin America's ills on the United States.
Castañeda's plea to keep our border open to Mexican immigrants underscores the points he makes about Mexico's failures as a society. Try to imagine conditions in Mexico today with an additional 10 million people (more than a tenth of Mexico's current population), the vast majority with little education and few skills. That's the estimate of the demographer Leon Bouvier, of the Center for Immigration Studies, of the Mexicans who have immigrated legally and illegally into the United States since 1960, plus their offspring.
But in advocating immigration to the United States as a pressure valve for Mexico, Castañeda ignores the negative consequences of this enormous south-north flow for the United States, and above all for its own poor citizens, mostly black and Hispanic. Growing income disparity within the United States is not the result only of Reagan policies. Another contributor is the vast pool of unskilled immigrants (Mexico being the largest source of them) that has flooded our labor market, displacing poor citizens and driving wages and benefits down. Immigrants also compete with poor citizens for social services.
Immigration is thus relevant to "The Crisis of Public Order," Adam Walinsky's compelling article in the same issue. Immigration both aggravates the poverty that nurtures violent crime and diverts resources from programs to do something about it. And there is at least some evidence, which Walinsky's data do not address, of a disproportionate Hispanic (principally of Mexican origin) involvement in crime--for example, in Colorado, where in 1988 Hispanics accounted for 11 percent of the population and 25 percent of the prison population.
Lawrence E. Harrison
Jorge Castañeda's description of the economically polarized Mexican society and its "informal" relationship to work, life, and love does help to explain the poverty and high birth rate of its underclass but in no way makes a reasonable case for addressing the ill consequences of this problem by shunting the unwanted masses onto the United States, as he attempts to do in his closing paragraph.
It is clear that the United States, acting as a safety valve for Mexico's unwanted, unsatisfied peoples and as a source of hope to all, has merely aided the Mexican ruling class in maintaining an exclusive grip on the nation's wealth. The unsatisfied can simply emigrate and send part of their paycheck home.
Apparently, what Mexico really needs is an outright revolution with a few ruling-class heads on the pikes to initiate change. This would be far more palatable to many in the United States than the social revolution we will experience at home if the gradual Mexican invasion of illegal immigration is allowed to continue.
Maple Grove, Minn.
Jorge Castañeda's main suggestion gave me pause, and I had to read it over several times to be certain I was not misinterpreting the author's advice. For Castañeda recommends that the United States allow huge waves of illegal Mexican aliens into the country in order to forestall a revolution in Mexico. He shows no concern at all with the impact on the U.S. labor market, school systems, or criminal-justice system (18 percent of prisoners in California are illegals).
Is Castañeda, who does not tell us which of Mexico's three racial groupings he belongs to, seeking to have the United States ally with a small racist group of millionaires and their assassination teams? I vote for a Mexican revolution. It may solve the immigrant problem in California, because many of la raza's militants could return to their homeland and fight for justice in a land in which Mexicans are genuinely oppressed (Mexico), instead of asking for special privileges in a tolerant country that unwisely admitted them (the United States).
Jorge Castañeda replies:
Mexico's current economic crisis is mentioned in the essay as an example of a much more atemporal and substantive problem: why Americans do not understand Mexico. Using the surprising--for many--nature of the crisis as an example, Itry to explain why Mexico retains an undeniable opacity for observers from abroad. I argue that it stems from the differences between Mexico and the United States, which stretch beyond levels of income and productivity and reach into the deeper realms of the soul, history, and society. No attempt is made to establish a causal relationship between Mexico's ills--economic, social, or otherwise--and those ferocious differences.
After examining some of the differences I consider paramount, I conclude with another example--of an upcoming surprise that should not be one. Mexican economic, social, and political stability will be seriously affected if emigration to the United States is curtailed at a particularly difficult time for millions of Mexicans. Again, this is simply an example, not a causal relationship or a policy recommendation. I do not know, and certainly do not presume to discover in a short essay, whether Mexico's ills can be or have been solved--or aggravated, as the case may be--by immigration; I certainly do not state that immigration is the answer, nor do I recommend "that the United States allow huge waves of illegal Mexican aliens into the country in order to forestall a revolution in Mexico" (though this is partly what the United States has done for half a century, rightly or wrongly). I only want to suggest, in passing, that Americans should proceed today on the question of immigration with their eyes open. Among the many factors that U.S. immigration policy should take into account is the effect on Mexico. After fully considering what impact a given immigration reform could have on its neighbor, the United States may decide to act regardless of that impact. And that impact may occur regardless of whether the United States takes it into account.
Dam Problems In "The Trouble With Dams" (August Atlantic), Robert S. Devine laments the waste in pumping 43 million gallons of water to get a single pleasure boat through a lock: "water that could have helped dying salmon survive, or could have generated enough electricity (about $700 worth) to supply an average house in the Northwest for one year." Devine seemingly thinks that after water is pumped up to the lock's top level, it proceeds directly to the earth's core. But the next time the lock is lowered, that 43 million gallons of water will be returned to the lower level, as available for fish habitat, power generation, and other downstream uses as it ever was. (If the lock in question routes its downflows through a hydroelectric generator, that 43-million-gallon parcel of water will actually generate more electricity than if the lock had never captured it.)