Race and Ethnicity - Mexican americans: tomorrow's leviathan?

Because the results to date have been so marginal for Mexican American efforts to influence diplomatic issues that affect them, there is some temptation to conclude that this is a group destined to fall short in the future. Yet with the 2000 census reporting what might well be described as an explosion in Hispanic and Mexican populations, cautious observers will likely reserve judgment before suggesting that the future will resemble the past for Mexican Americans. Demographics, the current attention being paid by both political parties, and group activism seem likely to combine to make this ethnic group one with enormous future influence on foreign policy.

From the time of the Mexican cession in 1848, Mexicans were targets of prejudice, violence, and economic exploitation in the land that was once theirs. Whether established residents or itinerant agricultural workers, they were an underclass striving to avoid poverty and discrimination in the United States. The Mexican government was indifferent toward them, and public attitudes in the United States ensured that they remained politically inactive.

Civil war in their homeland and severe economic problems drove one-tenth of Mexico's population into the United States in the two decades prior to the Great Depression. However, a search for scapegoats in the 1930s led to mass deportation of Mexicans back to Mexico. Distinctively dressed Mexican-American youths were frequently attacked by white servicemen in Los Angeles during World War II. These "zoot suit riots" led the Mexican government to protest, and request that measures be taken to end the violence. After the war the Mexican population in the United States rapidly increased with the addition of millions of contract laborers (braceros) and undocumented workers. These groups did not participate in politics, and even those immigrants who could have participated did not move quickly toward naturalization and a role in the political system.

Political activism at the national level began in the 1960s with Mexican-American organizations lobbying for immigration legislation, congressmen of Mexican ancestry playing the major role in forming the Hispanic Caucus, and the Mexican government finally cooperating with the community's leaders and associations. The first real success Mexican Americans demonstrated as a pressure group on foreign policy issues was in shaping the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The inclusion of an amnesty program for millions of the undocumented who could prove they had been in the United States prior to l982 was a striking victory.

Because of demographic changes and their emerging political activism, Mexican-American leaders have suggested that in the future their record of influencing foreign policy in areas of interest could match that of any other ethnic group. The increase in Hispanic population, to 35,305,818 (13 percent of the national total), was the phenomenon of the 2000 census. Mexican Americans comprised 59 percent of that Hispanic total and 7 percent of the national total. The 20,640,711 Mexican Americans represented a 53 percent increase in just ten years. Eighty-seven percent of Mexican Americans live in the West and the South, giving them a regional importance in both sections that could well be translated into even greater political advantage. In two crucial states in presidential elections, Mexican Americans make up 24 percent of the population of Texas and 21 percent in California.

Barriers still exist that militate against Mexican Americans' reaching their potential political strength. Even those Mexican Americans who have been in a position to exercise their citizenship rights by participating in electoral politics have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Proximity to Mexico has made it possible for some immigrants to travel back and forth and not identify themselves with the cause of working for their rights as residents of the United States. As an ethnic group in the lower economic strata, the route to political influence through financing candidates and causes is not as likely as it might be for high-income groups. The median age of Mexican Americans is twenty-four, compared with a national median age of thirty-five, so a substantial percentage of Mexican Americans are not yet of an age that allows them to participate in the electoral system. Yet with all these qualifications, the overriding conclusion is that someday Mexican Americans will play an influential role in American foreign policy.

The major foreign policy initiatives that most interest Mexican Americans involve immigration and trade issues between Mexico and the United States. These include amnesty for undocumented Mexicans working in the United States, consideration of a new guest-worker program, controls over drug trafficking, liberalizing trade and investment ties, regulation of the border, and fighting discrimination and violence against immigrants. The attention that has recently been given to these issues by the political parties and politicians testifies to an awareness of the political potential of Mexican Americans.

When he ran for governor of Texas, George W. Bush made a concerted and successful effort to win the Mexican-American vote. Both as a candidate and as an elected president, Bush has stressed his understanding of Mexican-American concerns, his interest in immigration liberalization, the promotion of Hispanics to high government positions, implementation of policies to improve the economic status of the group, and his ties with Mexico and its new president, Vicente Fox. Most dramatically, in 2001 Bush promised to work to legalize the status of millions of undocumented workers, mostly Mexicans, living in the United States.

Republicans consider Mexican Americans an ethnic minority that can be won over from its tradition of being Democrats. In 1996 Bill Clinton received 72 percent of the Hispanic vote, so there is no reason why Democrats will concede Hispanics and Mexican Americans to the Republicans. However, since Bush won one-third of the Hispanic vote in 2000, Republicans are confident that a shift is under way. Throughout the presidential and congressional elections from 1990 to 2000, the two major political parties have been as evenly divided in electoral strength as has ever been the case. Perhaps whichever is more successful with Mexican-American voters will prevail early in the twenty-first century as the majority party. Given the history of ethnic politics in making foreign policy, it seems likely that politicians and parties will endorse much of the agenda in foreign policy that Hispanic and Mexican-American groups will put forward in the future.

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