Posted by Ginny on October 26th, 2008 (All posts by Ginny)
Mrs. Davis thoughtfully comments on James’s post :
In case you missed it, the housing market started to crash about a year ago. But unemployment never rose. Why? They all went back to Mexico. They may have a hard time getting a job there, but they’ve saved a lot of dollars and they’re still the richest guys in the village. They’ll hang out till we need them again and then they’ll be back. Even in those midwestern meat and poultry packing plants.
James, Ohio must be really different from other parts of flyover country. I don’t think anyone would mistake Lexington, Nebraska for Marin County. But guys stand around there as they do all over Texas – waiting for a job on week-ends. Put in a meat packing plant and suddenly the Somalis and Mexicans join the cowboys at Wal-Mart.
A friend has an MBA, closely reads WSJ; her rental empire makes her aware of the local economy. [Mrs. Davis, of course, is way ahead of me.] What my friend sees may be obvious, but not to me until she notes it. I complained that unemployment figures didn’t seem as bad as the news contended. We were out walking and two bicyclists sped around us. She noted a friend said he never saw illegals locally. We laughed; every time we walk, we are passed by several guys, apparently Hispanic, circling the park on their way from various jobs or nights out. I’d never thought how that affected the earlier unemployment statistics (hiring higher than it seemed) and now (lower). Of course: Who does construction around here? Not the same people who are filing for unemployment or even on the grid. She also remarked that last month was the worst in her three or four decades as landlord. Several quite long-term and steady tenants were late or had skipped town. She rents duplexes; some go to students but many to the working class. Her tenants aren’t illegals, but they often work construction. (Of course we might wonder if this wasn’t an example of unintended consequences – do some of these people think they are going to be bailed out like the big boys?) We haven’t been severely affected by the bubble, still construction work is down.
This week I had a conference with a bright freshman comp student. I’d assumed he was Mexican-American from his last name, minimal accent and chosen topic (the fence – he was against it). My hasty generalization: he’s from Venezuela. He argued the fence was a physical solution for a socio-economic problem. Well, yes. I had the feeling he’d heard that, but his responses are usually deeper. So, I asked, whose socio-economic problem was it? Without those workers our houses would be more expensive. But, as important, a country with hard workers and natural resources should not need an escape valve for its most industrious and ambitious citizens.
Sure, America has traditionally been a destination for those wanting land, a job, a future; the force of that migration, like those through millennia, has a biological inevitability. The grandfather in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony talks about leading a wagon train:
It wasn’t Indians that were important nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering. I was the leader, but if I hadn’t been there, someone else would have been the head. The thing had to have a head.
The energy of millions who want a better life for their kids is hard to restrain – in the nineteenth century as those prairie schooners set out or now. But isn’t that the point? Mexico isn’t like America – but that difference doesn’t lie in its people’s productivity (their productivity here) nor even the natural resources.
A second friend (all my friends think more deeply than I) mentioned the reverse migration which The Houston Chronicle describes
In Michoacán, where about a one-quarter of the population has migrated to the U. S., officials are scrambling to put together economic plans to deal with the potential return of thousands to rural areas. . . . The hope is that rural areas can absorb the returnees without severe dislocation.
The focus is on returning families:
They may be returning with some wealth and certainly higher expectations. Nonetheless, they will face the problems outsiders generally do:
. . . those returning face discrimination and their children find it difficult to enroll in local schools. Governors, whose budgets have been severely tested while dealing with the health care, education and justice system problems posed by the waves of immigrants north, may take a grim satisfaction at the difficulty Mexican towns (and villages) are having assimilating and caring for those now headed south.
My student probably got a lower grade than he deserved because his second paragraph had set me off; he argued the wall was a symbol of America’s xenophobia. I pointed out that that approach wasn’t useful. He argued he’d meant it neutrally; I wondered in what universe. He’s pleasant, but clearly saw this as a particular and virulent American characteristic. I pointed out that we had a long tradition of assimilation. His response was the WWII interment, though he said for the Chinese. (His segue was from twenties’ restrictions.) It was a shameful episode. But as returning Mexicans are finding, distrusting outsiders is human nature. Most of his schooling was in Venezuela; however, his father had been in graduate school here and so he’d spent some youthful years in the local schools. He said then and now he was sometimes treated as an outsider. Well, I said, you have my sympathy but if you don’t think that’s human nature, you don’t know human nature.
The consequences of Mexican repatriation, like its reverse, will be complicated. We wondered how much the immigrants affected American culture, language, economy. Now, south of us, Mexico will find out how much U.S. experience changed those same people. That there will be consequences, and probably mixed ones, is a certainty.
Perhaps those returning will have been sufficiently politicized to change Mexico’s policies. If so, some of the most politicized experience will be in the form of socialist and even Marxist theories.
Perhaps, on the other hand, they will have seen virtues in a more transparent judicial system, a more competitive election process, more consistent laws. They may encourage reforms that enforce rights and support a smoother and more productive economy.
Perhaps they will be alienated and return (or alienated and stay). One third died, one third left & only a third remained in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century; that made for desperate people and, faced with the roller coaster economy of the 1850’s and the Civil War, their responses (and the consequences) were often violent and not pleasant. The analogy is hardly perfect, but it does give a context for the California fear.
Perhaps returning workers will build domestic and public infrastructure in Mexico with the skills and money earned here.
And, as Americans have often found – “how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen” – those villagers returning from LA and Houston aren’t likely to remain content with rural life.
The analogy to Alabama in 1820 and a potential uprising seem far more stretched than one to the Irish of 1850. Of course, our future is dimming and if we have a president who thinks he should unilaterally renegotiate our treaty with Mexico, that president quite simpatico with the unions, I’m not sure the future looks much better South. Still, in the long run, this intermixing of the two cultures is likely to have mixed consequences – certainly not all bad.