SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: Mexican Immigration

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

How is Mexican immigration changing the United States in the twenty-first century? In the past several decades, the United States has seen an explosion in the number of Hispanic immigrants to this country, most of them from Mexico. And most of them go to California. Today nearly half of all Californians are immigrants or the children of immigrants—most of them coming originally from Mexico. What is the economic and social impact of this influx on California, and what does it bode for the rest of the country? What makes Mexican immigration different than immigration from other countries? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

Recorded on Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, as Mexicans head north, is California headed south?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Mexican immigration. Over the last several decades, the United States has experienced an explosion of Hispanic immigrants, most of them from Mexico, and to California. And since what happens in California is so often a harbinger for the rest of the nation, this is an issue that concerns all Americans. Just how is Mexican immigration different from all the waves of immigration to this country that have gone before? What should we do about Mexican immigration? What can we do about Mexican immigration?

Joining us, two guests. Richard Rodriguez is an editor at the Pacific News Service and the author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America. Victor Davis Hanson is a professor of classics at the California State University at Fresno and the author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming.

Title: From Si to Shining Si

Peter Robinson: Kevin Starr, one of the leading historians of California, now the State Librarian: "The Hispanic nature of California was temporarily swamped between the 1880s and the 1960s, but the Anglo hegemony was only an intermittent phase. What we are seeing now is a reassertion of the longer pattern." The rising Mexican influence, demographic, cultural, is only a reassertion of a longer, larger pattern. Richard?

Richard Rodriguez: I think there's some wisdom in what he's saying.

Peter Robinson: Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Superficial wisdom. People forget that while the place names and the topography have been eponymously recognized by people from Spain, it was only 10,000 people--Mexicans, who took it from Spanish, who took it from indigenous people. and the anthropologists were shocked that such a beautiful, big state was relatively ahistorically uninhabited.

Peter Robinson: The question here is what's happened and how quickly has it happened? Today nearly half of all Californians are immigrants or the children of immigrants. California is home to 40% of the total number of immigrants in the entire nation and perhaps as many as two-thirds, perhaps even more of these immigrants and their offspring are Hispanic, most of them tracing back to Mexico. Figures on illegal immigrants, difficult to come by obviously, because they're here without documents. But I can't find anybody on the Web or in articles who doubts that there are at least 1.5 million illegal immigrants in California and some say far more than that. As recently as 1970, California remained 90% white. That is to say, when Ronald Reagan runs for Governor of California in 1966, he's essentially running for governor of a Midwestern state, a kind of Iowa on the Pacific. Today, the white population is less than half. Victor, what is it about this that alarms you, worries you, concerns you?

Victor Davis Hanson: Nothing alarms me at all about the racial question. I'm from a family whose--one sibling is married to someone from Mexico, the other has stepchildren. Both my daughters are going steady with Mexican--so the question for me is not the color of Californians but the cultural paradigm they're going to adapt. I don't think that most of the people who risk their life coming northward from Oaxaca or Chiapas--they have made the most important decision in their life to reject that culture, whether you like it or not. I'm talking about not the music, their folklore, their pride and heritage, but the politics and the economics and the social life of Mexico. And so I don't think they would want to replicate up here what they left behind. What does that mean? It means, are we going to be a brown state, which I think we are going to be, but are we going to have the old idea of western institutionalized, consensual government, a transparent society, a free press, the chauvinism of middle class, a secular society, a tolerance for women, a tolerance for homosexuals, this liberal transparent society? Or are we going to say, no, no, we're just a multicultural society and no one culture is better than the other? This was all California. We're reclaiming it as the MECHA says, as a bronze country for bronze people, everything for La Raza nothing for--and if we get into that, we're going to go the way of Rwanda and the Balkans.

Peter Robinson: You would subscribe completely to the way he frames the question?

Richard Rodriguez: Most of that, yes, I would subscribe. I'm not the poster boy for radical Mexican-American politics. I am exactly the opposite. I've published opinions against bilingual education, published opinions against affirmative action based on ethnicity or race. I'm not in love with Mexico. My parents left Mexico--I'm quite clear about the reasons that they left Mexico. But they also brought Mexico with them. Mexico is a splendid civilization. This is no trivial neighbor we're living next to, a kind of third world country. This is a country in the 1950s when the braceros used to come up, of men who didn't forget the past in a country, the United States, where we were taught as children to think of the future. These are people who haunted America because they kept going back and forth in many ways, although Victor doesn't talk about this in talking about the migrant workers who come to work in the fields in the Central Valley. The men I knew were commuters between two civilizations. They took a great deal of America back with them as appliances, as Elvis Presley records, as dollars. They transformed states like Michoacan. They transformed Jalisco where my parents come from. I believe they are--although we only speak about the Mexicanization of California, we never speak about the Americanization of Mexico.

Peter Robinson: A question for Victor. Why should all this Mexican immigration be a cause for concern?

Title: Low Writers

Peter Robinson: Between 1976 and 1996, you take two decades, look at the five counties in the L.A. Basin--I'm including Ventura and Kern which overlap outside the basin--but we're talking fundamentally about the L.A. Basin--they start the period with a population of about 10 million and end the population, the period, with a population of about 15 million. That's a 50% increase in 20 years. If a migration of that size had happened in Europe, there would be warfare. Roughly speaking, about a million of the immigrants are Asian and the overwhelming proportion of the rest are Hispanic, mostly Mexican. Now, you look at what happens from '76 to 1996 and you say to yourself, the political institutions hold, the economy of Southern California, of the L.A. Basin, continues to grow…

Richard Rodriguez: …and thrive.

Peter Robinson: …and thrive. And so what are we worried about? In other words, what I want from you, Victor, is an instance or two of what has gone wrong or what could go wrong?

Victor Davis Hanson: Let me give you an example. Sixty-three percent of all the students that I have at the California State University campus at Fresno that are Hispanic, 60% of them failed the entrance requirements for basic math and English. So they cannot take college courses. Seven percent of all people of Mexican-American heritage--of all the different statuses--7% hold a bachelor's degree. Four out of every ten Latinos are dropping out of high school. Now why is that? If we were to discuss that problem by any traditional American melting pot paradigm, it's because so many people came so rapidly under auspices that were often illegal which meant two things. One, they couldn't participate in the civic life of the community and they were subject to exploitation by cynical employers who wanted them here to do nannies, cut grass, but also meat packing, agriculture, on the right. And on the left hand in glove, there were politicians, people in the universities that wanted them an unassimilated constituency that would need group rather than individual. And in between that cynical alliance, we allowed people to have bilingual education, separate graduation ceremonies, theme houses, rewrite the histories in their schoolbook and we did not treat them the way we did the Poles or the Jews or the Swedes. My grandparents came--on one side to the San Joaquin Valley from Sweden. Everybody called them squareheads. They made their own little colony of Kingsburg. And they said we're only going to stay in here. We're never going to get out of here. We're going to have Swedish in our schools. That lasted about fifteen years. And by 1910, they were all assimilated and they couldn't get away with that for two seconds. We've got communities in the Central Valley of Parlier and Orange Cove or in the West Side, Huron and Mendota. They're apartheid communities with people where there's nobody else who was not born in Mexico or first generation. The schools are--my school that I went to which was 70% Mexican-American, is now 99.9% and you know how many people pass the minimum state achievement rate? Nine percent. So if the state is 40% Hispanic and it's going to be 60% and 70% and it's a high-tech sophisticated society, who's going to train this new generation if we don't get a Marshall Plan and start legal immigration, measured immigration, assimilation, inter-marriage, et cetera.

Richard Rodriguez: I accept all those statistics. I also am much less pessimistic than Richard partly because I think a lot of the areas that Victor doesn't concern himself with, are areas that are very much interesting to me. For example, religion. Right now Latin America is being converted by the United States--by northern missionaries at such a rate that Latin America is converting to Evangelical Protestantism at a rate that's--demography suggests by the year 2070, that Latin America will be in its majority Evangelical Protestant. I am beginning to meet now in cities like Tijuana, Mexican missionaries who are coming to the United States, they tell me, to convert the United States to Protestantism. And we are sitting here at Stanford worried about whether they're going to assimilate. They are trying to return us to our American roots. To speak of apartheid when the majority of Hispanics in the United States live cheek to jowl with African-Americans. The reason that Central Valley small agricultural towns aren't the best place to watch this--L.A., Dallas, Chicago, New York, these are the places where Hispanics really are both in tension with and creating a new civilization that I think belongs to the Americans.

Peter Robinson: We're familiar with the ways in which other immigrant groups have assimilated into the American melting pot. What makes Mexican immigrants different?

Title: You Can Go Home Again

Peter Robinson: Item one, proximity, quote, Victor. I'm quoting you to yourself. "Had Mexicans flocked to Costa Rica or had New Zealanders rushed to Los Angeles, the present problems of both hosts and guests would be non-existent." How come?

Victor Davis Hanson: We have a 2,000-mile porous border, so this border is a burden actually to the immigrant because it confuses--because a person can walk back and forth. They're not psychologically guillotined as my ancestors are. So that's one thing right there. And the second thing is psychologically and spiritually, there are place names in California that make a very superficial affinity as a person comes and says well, I see San Jose--it's always been Mexico, not understanding that somewhere around 1840, there was a landslide revolutionary change in this culture.

Peter Robinson: I'm going to quote you to yourself again. "Forget that the country is as poor as India and as chaotic as Zimbabwe, the Mexican government looks on the exportation of its poorest as an economic issue. Remittances from illegal aliens here in California reach the billions of dollars and so prop up the Mexican government." Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Couple things. $12 billion now go back to Mexico. It's bigger than the tourist industry inside Mexico. That's number one. Number two, if Mexico was going to make the fundamental reform, it's a wealthy country with oil, agriculture, climate--everything we have. If it was going to make the fundamental reforms that would allow poor people in Oaxaca to have a decent life, then it would not export two million people but they might march on Mexico City for a redress of grievances. So we are the safety valve for revolution the way that we were for Europe in the nineteenth--and so what we have is this strange triangulation of the race industry in California among the Chicano radical movements, the cynical white agri-business employers and hotels and meat-packing and the Mexican government. And in between, we have a life cycle. A man will come from Oaxaca at 18. He'll say $10 in cash an hour, this is heaven. He's off the books. He doesn't participate. He gets six or seven guys. He lives cheaply. He works hard and what happens? He does things that nature does. He gets injured. He ages. He has a family. And suddenly he's 50. Thirty years later, he's got a bad back and what does the employer do, because I've watched this. He says, go get workmen's comp. Go get disability. Go get welfare. Go get Section 8 housing. So what does the employer say? Go get more people from Oaxaca so I can use them up.

Peter Robinson: Be optimistic about that Richard. That's a horrifying story…

Richard Rodriguez: You know I went down with a group of Mexicans from the Central Valley for a documentary I did a few years ago for the BBC. These are Mexicans who go down every year to Jaripo in Michoacan. And what…

Peter Robinson: Which is where they're from--their sort of ancestral ties are…

Richard Rodriguez: That's right. There's other communities from North Hollywood, another one from Austin, Texas. They all go to Jaripo. They go with their American clothes, with their American cars. There is no doubt what that celebration is about. It's about America and they are taking that caravan into Mexico with--one guy had a corvette that said USA #1. He was parked right in the central plaza.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Richard Rodriguez: To see this only as oh, woe us. The poor gringo, we are poor.

Peter Robinson: Victor was saying…

Richard Rodriguez: We are burdened by all these brown people and not to see this as the beginning of something dynamic in the Americas, where we are changing them and they are changing us.

Victor Davis Hanson: I just said that I didn't care about race. If the whole state is brown--all I care about is the people who come from Mexico are able to follow the paradigm that was so successful or they wouldn't have come here.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at a few of the ways we might respond to the problems created by Mexican immigration.

Title: Southern Exposure

Peter Robinson: Item one, enforce immigration law. In other words, gain control of the borders. I'm going to quote Victor one more time here. We could, "patrol our borders to be sure requiring fortification and a militarization of sorts, to insure only legal and vastly reduced immigration, perhaps at a national rate of no more than 150,000 or so legal entries per year from Mexico." Now by the way, before you dismiss that lightly, bear in mind that the great waves of immigration--two previous ones in this country, eighteenth century but then also this big one of 1880 to 1920 roughly--these waves of immigration tend to get cut off. There's a breathing period. There's a period during which assimilation can take place. And in our recent history, the accelerator gets pressed again around 1965 with the passage of new legislation. So what about this notion that we've had this enormous in-rush of immigrants? Let's just cool it for a while.

Richard Rodriguez: Well, how do you propose to do that? I mean, do you…

Peter Robinson: I propose to turn it over to the military expert.

Victor Davis Hanson: No, no, we never did that. We never did that. We never had to in the '50s or '40s. There was no…

Richard Rodriguez: Victor and I would both be--Victor refers to the border as porous and there's no border patrolman I've ever met who's argued that we can control that line. What we can do is we can do guest worker programs. We can try to keep track of who these people are coming across. And in some sense, legalize the movement. But there's no way to control a two thousand mile border.

Victor Davis Hanson: But we did in the '50s and '40s. And we did for a couple of reasons. One is that people who came from Mexico realized that when they came to Mexico, their children would be in English immersion programs and they would be assimilated. And it was a pretty brutal system. They would become instant Americans. Number two, employers knew that you would be in big trouble if you hired somebody without documentation. So the word got back to Oaxaca…

Peter Robinson: I want to come to all this…

Victor Davis Hanson: …that this was not going to be sort of quasi-Mexico in the United States. And then…

Peter Robinson: It was a pretty rigorous program…

Victor Davis Hanson: The second thing that I'm really worried about as a historian--the sanctity of law. I have a person who rents my vineyard from the Punjab--thousands of Sikhs and Vietnamese, six, seven years to get citizenship. It's underlying the sanctity and legitimacy of law--they say things to me like, why do we have to follow law and wait six years when people from Mexico are privileged and can come and get amnesty in a rolling fashion.

Peter Robinson: But the border, you don't believe the border can be controlled?

Victor Davis Hanson: I think it can be controlled if the incentives are taken away and we revert back…

Richard Rodriguez: And what Mexicans will tell you is that the incentives are not taken away. You have Mexicans who look at the United States and see this line of border patrolmen. They know that that's what the law is but they also know that beyond the law, there's somebody that will hire them at a drycleaners. And Mexicans read Americans cynically. They know…

Peter Robinson: They know better.

Richard Rodriguez: …what people see on PBS is not what's going on at the dry cleaner and…

Peter Robinson: In other words, he's right. American law has already been corrupted?

Richard Rodriguez: Exactly. By Americans.

Peter Robinson: On to another possible response to immigration.

Title: Working Without a Safety Net

Peter Robinson: Open the border, let anybody who wants to work come here but compare, for example, California with Texas. Texas overall has less of a problem with immigration. Why? It's my understanding that at least one of the fundamental reasons is it has a much stingier welfare operation. A) that cuts down on the incentives for anybody who wants to come across the border to sponge rather than work. B) it means that the people who are already in Texas don't feel this tremendous seething resentment that people are coming across the border to rip them off. So what needs to happen is that California welfare gets scaled back. What do you think?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, well I mentioned that but I meant it in a complex landscape because if you do limit immigration, then poor white people like my wife's family came from Oklahoma, poor black people, who are citizens, they finally have some leverage because what happens is--what killed Cesar Chavez? It was not these mustachioed, businessmen with black hats. It was illegal immigration that just poured in the '80s and ruined his union. As long as you have an alternate labor supply that can come in here then the people that we have can't compete with wages. So if you limit immigration, wages at the market still works, will rise, you won't need so much entitlements.

Peter Robinson: So what about this notion of cranking back welfare? You're in favor of that as far as it goes?

Victor Davis Hanson: Only if you cut the immigration because then the wage market will make up for what entitlements would have otherwise had to. So we don't need welfare for citizens who can't compete because…

Peter Robinson: This is the Pat Buchanan argument. You prefer workers who are already here to workers on the other side of the border.

Richard Rodriguez: It's a legitimate argument. I mean, one worries--I worry all the time in this country about what's--I used to work construction sites in this state. Used to see black and white men on those sites. They're gone now. They're all third world laborers. What happened to those guys? Where are they working? You're arguing about welfare. I'm telling you that if you think that what this world is organized by now is a search for the welfare dollar, I think you're wrong.

Peter Robinson: That's crazy. The truth is Mexicans come here to work…

Richard Rodriguez: There are grandmothers in Peru who know when they're picking apples in the Yakima Valley.

Victor Davis Hanson: It's more complex. Nobody's coming from Chiapas or Jalisco because they think they're going to get welfare but they do know that they're going to get wages probably off the books, in cash. They do know that after 30 years, they're not going to be able to keep this up. And they do know the employer will cynically put them over on a very rich entitlement industry. And the employer knows that. So cheek by jowl, the entitlement industry, the employer, the Mexican government, everybody benefits from the system. But we do have a $38 billion deficit.

Peter Robinson: Let's turn to one last way of responding to the problems of Mexican immigration.

Title: Made Into America

Peter Robinson: Reform number three. Victor's rapid march assimilation, a kind of Marshall Plan assimilation.

Richard Rodriguez: I'm in favor of that. I'm all in favor of the radical Americanization of the immigrant…

Peter Robinson: So you're opposed to bilingual education in public schools?

Richard Rodriguez: Let's be clear though. While I'm opposed to the teaching of home languages in the classroom. I want the Hispanic kid to feel that he is a part in the creation of this culture. And right now the way the assimilation argument goes is you become us. And it's never the sense of you contribute something to our culture. I think rhetorically we need to change that.

Peter Robinson: How do you do it? How do you do this rapid march assimilation?

Victor Davis Hanson: All you do is just remind everybody the simple truth. "Us" is the American paradigm. It's been enriched by every group almost insidiously without conscious artificial efforts. So when a person votes with their feet to come north to a different country, they're obviously going to be part of "us" and that "us" is not going to be white European necessarily. When I go to England or Australia, I feel like I'm in a different country. I have more in common--much more in common with brown people in Selma, California than I do white people in Australia. That being said, I find the problem with the La Raza community, the elite leadership is it does not want to admit, to go through that osmosis or transformation that everybody else did. And I understand that there's historic problems of racism. There's historic problems of brutality there but nevertheless, if you read the literature, there's sort of this La Raza concept the Mexican-American community has not fully dealt with in an open fashion, what they mean by La Raza. Because if they do, they're going to get right into the nomenclature of the 1930s and of the Volk in Germany. And it's a very hideous road to go down.

Peter Robinson: You write, Victor, about a perceptual gap between the elites who buy into multiculturalism and ordinary Californians who feel they can't speak about their anger and resentment toward unfettered immigration out loud because it's politically incorrect but then they pass ballot initiatives.

Victor Davis Hanson: They do.

Peter Robinson: So you get this perceptual gap. Now my question is, is there a perceptual gap among the immigrant community as well, where the elite want to sign everybody up for La Raza?

Victor Davis Hanson: Absolutely.

Richard Rodriguez: One of the things that Victor doesn't say in his book, for example, is that the overturning of bilingual education in California came about because four Hispanic mothers, and by the way, to call them Hispanic already is to Americanize them since there are no Hispanics in Latin America. This is a Richard Nixon creation that we are…

Peter Robinson: That term?

Richard Rodriguez: …Hispanics or Asians. This already is an Americanization of their identity.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Richard Rodriguez: But four Hispanic mothers in Southern California wanted the kids out of that program. There are people like my parents who never wanted part, to make La Raza into this bogeyman is to misrepresent I think, what's going on in America.

Peter Robinson: But the point--that what Victor says is you look south of the border and you see a different world. Depressed wage rates, a country that is mired in poverty, that only now in the 21st century is making the first little baby steps toward democracy and there's a pretty good question about just how well that whole project is going. And up here you have a different world. And so Victor is saying, which wins? I mean, no doubt there's some back and forth to be celebrated right?

Victor Davis Hanson: Let me clarify. You talk to people who have come from Mexico as I have and you ask them why did they come across, they will tell you that they do not want the police to ask for a bribe, right--roll down the window and ask for money. They want their gasoline not to ruin their carburetor. They do not want to get sick with the water. They want to be able to vote. They have a whole idea--it's not just wages. And as one person said to me and if I could be so candid because it sounds so retrograde but he said, if everything in the Central Valley looks like Mexico, I will go to Oregon. If Oregon looks like where I came from, I will go to Washington.

Richard Rodriguez: I know people in Oregon who are moving to Mexico because they're--does that surprise you?

Peter Robinson: To retire?

Richard Rodriguez: I know people in San Diego who live in Tijuana now, Americans. I know grandmothers who would prefer to grow old in Mexico.

Victor Davis Hanson: No, no, no. They live in enclaves.

Richard Rodriguez: They live in enclaves but there is this appreciation of cultures going on in the Americas. I think that…

Peter Robinson: It's television gentlemen but you've just given me the last question. Ten years from now, who will have won the culture war? Will there be a sense in which California looks more like Mexico or more like Oregon? Which way do things go and what will be the case ten years from now?

Victor Davis Hanson: I think there's an ultimate truth that finally people leave Mexico because they want something different. So this difference is going to stay different. Otherwise people would never leave Mexico.

Peter Robinson: So you are fundamentally optimistic?

Victor Davis Hanson: I am. I am. I think the state will look different but the practice of social, cultural, politically, it'll be…

Peter Robinson: It'll still be America?

Victor Davis Hanson: It has to, otherwise people won't want to come here.

Peter Robinson: Richard?

Richard Rodriguez: Yeah, of course. Of course it'll be. We'll have better food. We'll have Cal-Mex which right now tastes like Taco Bell but it's going to be spicier and meatier and it'll reflect a tension to the state the way Tex-Mex does the history of Texas. I'm much more of the George Bush opinion, when he was against 187 in Texas, that that kind of symbolic war against the immigrant is not appropriate to the Republican Party. I'm not a Pete Wilson Republican.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Richard Rodriguez, Victor Davis Hanson, thank you very much.

Kate Kendal: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.