Perception and reality

In politics they say that “perception is reality”, which is not very distinct from the assertion of one of Mexico’s political sages, JesúsReyes-Heroles in the sense that in politics, “form is content”. Within this context, what happens when the reality changes but perceptions remain immobile? It is possible that we are in the midst an enormous paradigm shift in the migration issue but that the perceptions, in the U.S. as well as in Mexico, are not adjusting.

Each person has his or her way of seeing the world, the manner of understanding why “things are the way they are”.   Perceptions are constructed from learning, knowledge and experiences, but this frequently has the effect of impeding us from observing when a change occurs. It is to this type of disquisition that a philosopher at the beginning of the sixties responded with a book that transformed the way of comprehending the changes in the world. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn developed the concept of the “paradigm shift”, whose central argument is that scientific advancement is not evolutionary but rather the product of “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions”and that in these revolutions, “one conceptual world view is replaced by another”. Something like this could be taking place at present in the world of Mexican migration to the U.S., but no one in that so very charged political environment appears to be taking note of it.

The migratory matter cuts passions loose. On the one hand, migration is the product of the demand: in the absence of a social safety net to help them, the migrants go for “the sure thing” or something as sure as possible. Typically, they find out about an available job from a relative or friend and this leads them to set out on the arduous via crucis through inhospitable terrain and mafias dedicated to human trafficking, in addition to the risk of being detained by “lamigra,” the border patrol. Without the reasonable certainty of getting a job, none of these would make the decision of abandoning their family and homeland. It also explains why, in normal times, unemployment among migrants is virtually zero.

From the perspective of the Americans, who see the growth of enormous settlements of strange people and who overcrowd their cities, illegal migrants look very different. Many of these Americans see hundreds of thousands of migrants cross the border and later make their waythrough their properties, particularly in Arizona, and they have organized and adopted extreme measures that include militias armed and ready to kill migrants. But what’s relevant is that passions run high and have created a political dynamic that impedes serious discussion in the U.S. on how to approach the phenomenon.

The migratory theme has two sides: that of those who are already there (the “stock”) and that of those who respond to new opportunities (created by the companies’ demand for hand labor) to migrate (the “flow”). The immigrants who are already there live in a world of legal uncertainty and, as legal spaces close down, they encounter basic problems with respect to their children’s education, access to health services and the possibility of obtaining a driver’s license. The world of illegality is tough in a society that values the rule of law and that doesn’t know what to do with a population that is not legally recognized. Many want to resolve the issue of those who already live there but they don’t want this solution to become an incentive for new claimants, as occurred with theSimpson-Rodinolaw in the eighties.

From the Mexican political perspective, there have been three facets that are revealing of the complexity involved. Fox bet his presidency on a decision over which he had no influence at all: as much as Bush was willing to push an immigration bill through, this never materialized. Calderón opted for “de-migrating” the bilateral agenda, disowning the theme. No one saw to the real problem that no politician can ignore. Suffice to say, it is impossible for many governors to turn a blind eye to the fact that more than 50% of their states’ adult populations, as happens in Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato, (and 10% of the entire population of the country), is found in another nation. No politician can ignore such numbers.

The U.S. presidential election of this past November, in which an overwhelming majority of Hispanics and Asians voted for Obama, has created a novel political situation that, many believe, will lead to serious discussion concerning the immigration policy of that country. The debates that have taken place to date are not limited to the issue of illegal migratory flows, but rather many are centered on things like visas for engineers, the permanence of foreign graduate students in the U.S. and a revision (perhaps rejection) of a historical policy of reuniting families. In all of this debate, the Mexicans are the bad guys of the film.

What is paradoxical, but politically inescapable, is that the potential revision of U.S. immigration policy comes at a time when Mexican migratory flows are negative, that is, when there are more returning than embarking upon the way North. The economic crisis diminished job opportunities drastically, above all in the construction industry, which in turn has reduced the flows. However, the more fundamental issue is that the Mexican demographic curve is changing rapidly, and that implies that the number of potential immigrants is also decreasing. This is a paradigm shift that has not yet penetrated the political discussion.

Those considering the possibility of migrating do a simple calculation: the job availability where they find themselves, the difference in salaries between the two countries and the costs of undertaking the trip. This calculation was highly favorable toward emigration in the nineties due to the fast growth of the U.S. economy, Mexico’s inability to generate high growth levels and the enormous increaseof the population during the two previous decades.

My impression is that these premises could be shattering themselves into smithereens: first, it is highly probable that the new government will achieve creating conditions for fast economic growth in Mexico. Second, it appears improbable that the U.S. economy will procure an accelerated recovery. Finally, this “excess” of Mexicans is disappearing because for years now the birth rate has not been perceptibly greater than the replacement level. That is, we are possibly facing the end of the great migratory flows.

The problem at present is one of perceptions. It is necessary to solve the illegality problem of the co-nationals living there and the new reality makes this infinitely simpler, provided that everyone understands that, with regard to future migrants, very few will be Mexicans.  Changing perceptions is a political imperative.