Bienvenidos, Presidente Calderón
(Press ONE for English.) The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, is currently on an official state visit to the United States, at a very difficult time owing to deep divisions over the issue of immigration. Last night President and Mrs. Obama welcomed President and Mrs. Calderon with a state dinner, only the second such event since the 2009 inauguration. ([The previous state dinner] was when the infamous Salahis "crashed" the party.)
During the "press availability" * yesterday, President Calderon criticized the new immigration law in Arizona (see April 30) as "discriminatory." Calderon called for a "comprehensive solution that will be respectful of the rights of the individual." See whitehouse.gov. As a conservative, Calderon is about as friendly a leader as the United States can expect right now; he barely won a hotly-contest election in July 2006, and leftists in Mexico still loathe him, and are very hostile to U.S. interests. For his part, President Obama asked for bipartisan cooperation on the issue of immigration reform, in marked contrast to his highly partisan approach to passing his health care bill.
Calderon's criticisms of Arizona will no doubt stir the resentment and anger of many Americans, but we should pause to reflect on the ways in which U.S. policy intrudes upon Mexican sovereignty, and how the nasty habits of American society negatively impact Mexico. Mexico is suffering through a virtual civil war right now, as well-funded, well-armed narcotics gangs challenge police authority in Ciudad Juarez and other cities in Mexico. If it weren't for all the drug consumers in the United States, that problem would not exist. That raises the question of whether or not the "drug war" as currently being fought is even winnable. There are many, many indications that it is not. And so, one aspect of the complex state of Mexican-American relations is that any true "comprehensive solution" to the problem of immigration will require that U.S. drug policies be reformed, probably meaning that small amounts of less-harmful drugs such as marijuana should be decriminalized.
* Apparently, a "press availability" is more controlled than a "press conference," in which reporters are free to ask questions.
This visit comes just over a year since President Obama visited Mexico; he also visited Guadalajara for a summit meeting in August. The last time a Mexican president visited the United States (other than appearances at the United Nations in New York) was when Vicente Fox visited California and Utah in May 2006. I understand that President Calderon is under heavy domestic pressure, in part because he leads a minority party, but he and President Obama will have to face up to painful dilemmas and take bold, honest positions on key policy issues if U.S.-Mexican relations are to be improved in years to come. I'm not very optimistic.
Mom doesn't have papers
First Lady Michelle Obama was visiting a Maryland elementary school as part of her anti-obesity campaign, joined by Mrs. Margarita Zavala (President Calderon's wife), when a little girl "stole the show." She said her mom told her that President Obama was "taking away" everyone who didn't have papers. It is both sad and very instructive that such paranoid beliefs run rampant in the immigrant community right now. The Washington Post has a video of the poignant exchange:
Mrs. Obama: "Yeah, well, that's something we have to work on. To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers. Right"?
Student: "But my mom doesn't have papers."
Mrs. Obama: "We have to work on that. We have to fix that."
Translation: We have to give papers to those who don't have any. At least that's what it sounds like to me.
It is tempting in these situations to indulge our feelings of sympathy without using our rational faculties to address the underlying policy dilemmas that give rise to such anxieties. It is also very easy for politicians on both sides of the political spectrum to exploit the situation for their own benefit, without really fixing the problem. Unless immigration reform includes a real effort to police our borders, reform drug laws, and reform entitlements, then it won't really be "reform," it will simply be a prolongation of the evil status quo of second-class citizenship (!) for illegal aliens.
Capitol Hill update
In his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress today, President Calderon declared that his government will defeat the narco-gangs but asked for U.S. help in controlling the flow of weapons into Mexico. He said 80% of the guns that police have seized recently came from the U.S., and that the problem has worsened since the U.S. ban on assault weapons ended in 2004. See BBC. He received hearty applause from the Democratic side of the aisle, where the Second Amendment is less of a priority.
Would Mexico be safer and more peaceful if its citizens enjoyed the right to bear arms? More than likely, but it would take a massive change of mindset in Mexican society. The idea that people should be self-reliant and that individual rights are paramount is so alien to the legal system that prevails in Latin America that the possibility of its people assuming responsibility for protecting their own families is almost negligible.
As for what practical, concrete steps could be taken now to preserve our national security, we must be realistic and seek bilateral compromises toward goals we share with Mexico. Even though our two governments are constituted on vastly different conceptions of state-society relations, we do share common objectives and interests, and we must be prepared to do what is necessary. Most Americans are clueless about how bad things are south of the border, and we need prompt, effective action -- not vain escapism or finger-pointing.