Latinos might have made the pivotal difference in Tuesday’s election, especially in battlegrounds like Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia. Republicans are already debating how to convert more of them — along with women, blacks and young people — from the Democratic camp.
Comprehensive immigration reform has been an elusive goal of both parties for two decades and is a priority of President Obama’s second term. But it will be hard to achieve unless the United States also re-envisions its approach to Mexico and other Latin American countries. The United States has historically shifted its Latin American policies according to its national interests. This won’t change, but the growing Latino voting bloc is likely to bring about a more nuanced approach.
For decades, public opinion about our southern neighbors — particularly with respect to immigration — has moved sharply to the right, with devastating consequences for transnational relations and for Latin American migrants in the United States. It was not always so.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy stressed cooperative hemispheric relations reliant on cultural and commercial exchange, and — despite periodic interventions and exploitative labor practices that contradicted it — that approach remained a pragmatic tenet of United States-Latin American relations after World War II. It aimed to appeal to voters of Latin American descent (at the time, mostly Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans); to insulate the United States against charges of imperialism and discrimination; and to buffer Latin America from Communist influence. Politicians in Mexico and the United States encouraged cross-border tourism, business ventures, student exchange programs, shopping trips and joint cultural celebrations.
The logic of gradual cooperation was so powerful that in 1962 even Barry M. Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator, predicted that by 2012, “the Mexican border will become as the Canadian border, a free one, with the formalities and red tape of ingress and egress cut to a minimum so that the residents of both countries can travel back and forth across the line as if it was not there.”
Cold war politics, which heightened suspicion of foreigners, complicated matters. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act took aim at the Mexican border as a doorway for Communist infiltration. In 1954, the Border Patrol began Operation Wetback, which rounded up and deported many thousands of Mexicans. Many more left voluntarily — “self-deported,” in today’s terms. And it is often forgotten that much migration was initiated by upheaval originating with American policies. From Roosevelt onward, presidents sanctioned antidemocratic violence in countries like Panama, Cuba, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. When their interest waned, they left behind violent unrest and military dictatorships, culminating in civil wars like those in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Today, American politicians continue to preach the benefits of harmonious relations with Latin America, primarily in commerce. But when it comes to immigration, much of the past 40 years has been spent building walls rather than bridges. The United States has replaced the Mexican border’s barbed wire with a steel fence. The war on drugs, fueled as much by American drug consumers as by American and Mexican policing, has militarized the border further. Nativist vigilantes north of the border have detained and tortured Mexican immigrants. Increasingly tied to extended families in Latin America by phone, Internet, remittances and travel, American Latinos watched these developments with alarm.
Republicans might do well to remember Ronald Reagan’s visit to Sonora, Mexico, shortly before the 1980 election. He called Mexico America’s most important ally and said undocumented immigrants had a right to work in the United States. In his second term he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which included amnesty provisions that naturalized millions of Mexicans, even though the law also militarized the border by expanding the Border Patrol.
Anti-immigrant politics have hardened since then. Mr. Obama, working with Congressional Republicans, must restore more humane policies, beginning with comprehensive immigration reform that will ensure citizenship for undocumented children and a path to legal status for other undocumented people. He must also demilitarize the border.
Americans shouldn’t see comprehensive immigration reform as a domestic policy that protects American sovereignty; instead, it should be a cross-border initiative with a vision of warm relations in the hemisphere. Border enforcement, criminal prosecution, fence construction and drug wars must be part of the debate. But more emphasis needs to be placed on enabling movement throughout the Americas by workers, families, students and businesspeople. This approach will strengthen our partnerships and also our national security.
However imperfectly, leaders from Roosevelt forward knew that friendly relationships with Latin America encouraged the assimilation and loyalty of Hispanics in the United States. If our leaders weren’t reminded of this lesson on election night, surely they will be soon.
Geraldo L. Cadava is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University.