The U.S. and Mexican governments are finally seeking common ground on immigration. At their recent meeting in Mexico, Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox agreed to set up a binational working group on the issue. The group represents the first balanced, top-level and coordinated U.S.-Mexican initiative on immigration. But it should not conduct all its deliberations behind closed doors. Rather, the group should seek the broad participation of civil society on both sides of the border, particularly Mexican hometown associations.
The number of these associations has surged in the past decade. Last year, there were an estimated 1,500 of them in the United States. While they are most plentiful in the barrios of Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas, the associations have accompanied Mexican immigrants to nearly every part of the country. Many arriving immigrants join them, but the bulk of their members secured legal resident status since passage of the 1986 Immigration Re-form and Control Act. Many eventually became U.S. citizens. In Los Angeles, the number of hometown associations registered with the Mexican consulate (only a fraction of the total) more than doubled between 1995-2000, from 109 to nearly 250.
The associations sprang up because migration has a hometown character. Migrants tend to move from a community to a specific neighborhood in a particular city in the host country. For example, Los Angeles immigrants from Cueramaro, Guanajuato, live in Hawaiian Gardens, while those from Leon, Guanajuato, reside in Compton.
As grass-roots organizations in the Latino immigrant barrio, the hometown associations have no peers. Though many Mexican immigrants are devout, their ties with the U.S. Catholic Church tend to be sporadic. Labor unions are only starting to make inroads into immigrant communities. Last summer in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO joined with several federations of Mexican hometown associations to campaign for a new immigrant amnesty bill, a measure the new binational working group will consider. But many association members are uncomfortable with the liberal agendas of labor unions and mainstream Latino organizations.
Mexican hometown associations enjoy influence on both sides of the border. Fox’s first public act as president was to receive association and Mexican American leaders at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Fox’s interest in Mexican hometown associations dates from his campaign for governor of Guanajuato in the mid-1990s. As governor, he helped make his state’s
migrants the best organized in Mexico by taking advantage of the emergence of hometown associations. Partly as a result of Fox’s cultivation of hometown associations, Guanajuato receives the single largest share of Mexico’s remittances, even though Guanajuato is only Mexico’s third largest sender state.
Mexican hometown associations help orient arriving immigrants, but they also collect money for repairing the church or town square back home, sinking wells, paving roads and even building factories. They contribute to the stream of migrant remittances that provide Mexico with its third-largest source of foreign exchange, more than $ 6 billion a year. Some Mexican villages now depend on what they receive from their migrants in the U.S. That makes migrants politically influential in the major sender states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Michoacan.
With hometown associations, Fox clearly sees an opportunity to realize Mexico’s ambition to foster an informal lobby based on Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. That is why he repeatedly addresses the “18 million Mexicans” in the U.S., annoying some Mexican American leaders, who are quick to point out that less than half that number are immigrants and most are U.S. citizens—of Mexican descent but not origin.
There are at least four ways that Mexican hometown associations can assist the binational group working on immigration. As a grass-roots organization of Mexican immigrants, they are a potential source of information on whether immigrants would participate in programs the binational group may be contemplating. If the group recommends a guest-worker program and
Congress approves, centers for contracting such workers will have to be established. The associations could help publicize locations of such centers and the terms of a guest-worker program.
Opponents of amnesty argue that its adoption would signal to migrants that if you can get to the U.S. illegally, eventually you will be eligible for legal status. Should a new amnesty bill contain measures to discourage such an interpretation, the hometown associations could help send that message.
Finally, the binational working group should take a look at the associations as vehicles to promote U.S. citizenship for Mexican legal residents. Part of Mexico’s more enlightened attitude toward Mexican migrants is to look favorably on the naturalization of those who wish to become Americans. As Mexico’s ambassador to the United States stated last March, Mexican immigrants
who have settled in the U.S. have a “natural desire to be good citizens of this country,” an aspiration that is “perfectly compatible” with cultivating “their roots and ties with Mexico.” By becoming U.S. citizens, Mexico believes, Mexican immigrants would increase the ranks of Americans friendly to Mexico and thus strengthen an informal Mexico lobby.
Several hometown associations already hold citizenship courses. Mexican consulates are in touch with many of them and thus could encourage such initiatives. Funding naturalization courses—through the associations, community colleges, night schools, etc.—would be a wise way for the U.S. to profit from Mexico’s more positive attitude toward its nationals in America.