Fox's borderline hope

Vicente Fox's victory in the Mexican elections is a cause for celebration not only by Mexico but also by its NAFTA partners, the United States and Canada, and indeed by democrats around the world. The eviction through electoral processes of a party that had kept itself in - and abused - power for three-quarters of a century initiates what may well be an irreversible democratization of our southern neighbor. And it reinvigorates the democratic movement in Latin America, debilitated by recent events in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.

In his first declarations, President Fox has announced that he will give a high priority to expanding immigration from Mexico to the US. From an economic standpoint, this appears to make sense for both countries: Mexico has a chronic unemployment problem - estimates run as high as 25 percent of the labor force - and unemployment in the US is so low that wage-driven inflation is the chief concern of the Federal Reserve.

The immigration debate in the US has been framed largely in economic terms, and in the current environment of an acute labor shortage, the pro-immigrationists are well ahead, even though Harvard's George Borjas has argued persuasively that poor Americans have been hurt. The pro-immigration view has been reinforced by the rapid growth in numbers of Hispanic voters, which has induced both political parties to take a pro-immigration stance.

But immigration looks very different when viewed in cultural terms, particularly with respect to the vast legal and illegal Hispanic immigration - perhaps as many as half a million people a year, most of them Mexicans with few skills and little education. That flow, along with high Hispanic birth rates, lies behind the recent projections that Hispanics will become a majority of Californians in 2040.

Traditional Latin American culture is an important part of the explanation for the poverty, weak democratic institutions, and social injustice that mark the history of Mexico and Latin America more generally. Two prominent Latin American contributors to the book "Culture Matters," Argentine intellectual Mariano Grondona and Cuban exile columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner, argue that cultural traditions like fatalism, authoritarianism, mistrust, and suppression of entrepreneurship have impeded Latin America's quest for democratic prosperity. In his book "The Americano Dream," Mexican-American Lionel Sosa argues that the same value system is an impediment to the upward mobility of Latin American immigrants in the US.

The indicators of progress for immigrants from Latin America are disturbing - and, we might note, contrast sharply with the impressive upward mobility of immigrants from East Asia. About 30 percent of Hispanics are below the poverty line, and about the same proportion drop out of high school - a pattern that persists in later generations. (The high school dropout rate in Latin America is well above 50 percent.) The percentage of Hispanics who are self-employed in California is below the state's average. And several sources of data suggest that Hispanics are disproportionately involved in crime, both in the US and Canada. (Crime has become a major problem throughout Latin America and particularly in Mexico, where it contributed to the downfall of the PRI.)

The power of culture for good and for bad was captured a few years ago by Mexican journalist Mauricio Gonzlez de la Garza after a visit to California: "Seeing San Diego, one becomes aware of what Mexico could be if it hadn't experienced a demographic explosion and an explosion of corruption, graft, and nepotism, and political, moral, social, and economic degradation."

To be sure, the US has absorbed large numbers of unskilled and uneducated immigrants in the past, and today the large majority of their descendants are in the cultural mainstream. But the numbers of immigrants and their geographic concentration today leave real doubts about the prospects for acculturation: 70 percent of children in the Los Angeles public schools and 60 percent in the Denver schools are Hispanic.

The late Dallas Morning News columnist Richard Estrada, a Mexican-American, defined the issue trenchantly a decade ago:

The problem in which the current immigration is suffused is, at heart, one of numbers. For when the numbers begin to favor not only the maintenance and replenishment of the immigrants' source culture, but also its overall growth, and in particular growth so large that the numbers not only impede assimilation but go beyond to pose a challenge to the traditional culture of the American nation, then there is a great deal about which to be concerned.

*Lawrence E. Harrison is an associate at the Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University. He is, with Samuel Huntington, co-editor of 'Culture Matters - How Values Shape Human Progress' (Basic Books).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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