September 14, 2001

While Politicians Posture - World's Poor on the Move

By Richard Rodriguez

When politicians have nothing to say, they tend to say it. Which explains why we have heard so much about illegal immigration of late from U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

At the moment, there is not a more revolutionary figure in the world than the so-called "illegal immigrant." There is no issue that humiliates world leaders more than the migration of the poor, across border fences and across oceans. Peasants in every continent are moving without the permission or supervision of governments, without passports; they are trampling what remains of the idea of national sovereignty.

You would think that Vicente Fox, who was once an executive for the Coca-Cola Company, would understand the irrelevancy of government when it comes to the new economic forces at play in our post-ideological, global economy.

Poor people in the Third World are mimicking the freedoms of business executives in the First World.

And nowhere has that movement of the poor been more evident than in Mexico, along the 2,000-mile U.S. border. The Mexican poor have been in migration, south to north, through most of the 20th century. Their migration has continued despite the embarrassment it has caused Mexican presidents and nationalists and despite the efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol.

But there Fox stood, addressing the U.S. Congress, having much to say, and nothing, finally, about Mexican illegal immigration to the United States.

Vicente Fox is beginning to remind me of Ronald Reagan. When you are having difficulty getting legislation through your country's congress, and when you have trouble saving your nation's economy from recession, just stand straight and smile a dazzling smile at the television cameras. Fox has a dazzling smile.

And, by the way, Vicente Fox wants the United States to make millions of his countrymen legal U.S. residents. It's a good idea, perhaps, but also more than a bit beside the point. Whatever legislation the U.S. Congress might pass concerning 3 or 4 million Mexicans in this country will be irrelevant the day after, as new thousands, then millions, make their way across the border in months to come.

President George Bush, for his part, is having his own difficulties with his nation's Congress, and is also having trouble rescuing the U.S. economy from what looks like a recession. So for weeks Bush has been floating his trial balloon regarding Mexican workers in the United States, which is exactly the same as Fox's balloon.

America's political media have not offered much insight into the implications of President Bush's trial balloon. The commonplace view has been that Bush is courting the "Hispanic voter."

But, of course, if Bush were to succeed in distinguishing Mexicans from all others, he would with one stroke undo the cohesiveness and political possibility of the new Hispanic constituency, which includes Peruvians and Cubans and Salvadorans — not just Mexicans.

Short of addressing the issue of migration globally, and not just as a problem between two countries, the Bush-Fox proposal is bound to be irrelevant and even quaint. It comes at a time when Syrians and Chinese are crossing into the United States from Canada, and at a time when there is a Guatemalan standing behind every Mexican headed from the South.

At the same moment that President Fox was addressing the U.S. Congress, Nigerians were swimming into South Africa and Iraqis were trying to walk through the high-speed train tunnel under the English Channel to get into England.

From Rome, Pope John Paul II has spoken about the freedom of the poor to migrate and the human rights the poor deserve from every government in the world. But the leaders of governments all over the world are in no mood to think globally about the freedom that the poor are coming to assume — their quest for work, not citizenship.

Even while Vicente Fox was speaking to the U.S. Congress, the idea of "El Norte" no doubt occurred to new numbers of Mexican men and women. Soon they will be arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol as they try to come across the dangerous border. Or they will end up serving us our breakfast at some fast-food joint, or taking care of our aged parents, or kneeling beside us in church.

Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation: An Autobiography With My Mexican Father" and the forthcoming "Brown."

Return to the Frontpage