How the Left Uses Group Identity to Undermine Self Government: The Case of Mexico’s American Diaspora
Surveying the political scene of 2016, we see some Americans taking offense at the phrase “All Lives Matter,” we see some students demanding that university presidents apologize for being white, we see a presidential candidate questioning whether a judge with a Mexican-sounding name can be impartial, and we see others finding it incomprehensible that political conservatives who oppose gay marriage could possibly be sincere in expressing condolences about shootings at a gay nightclub.
Dividing Americans into different identity groups doesn’t seem to be helping our discourse. Where did people learn to see themselves as members of a group first and as Americans second? When did politics become a zero-sum game of whose grievance rules?
Mike Gonzalez sheds some light on these questions with this look at how the Mexican government has worked to mobilize Mexican-Americans for its own political ends. Gonzalez finds that transnationalism—the belief that borders shouldn’t matter—has been the handmaiden of the ethnic-identity movement. If you think those two ideas are in tension, then you don’t understand the Church of the Left, which holds that victimhood is sainthood and the only victims are members of historically suppressed or marginalized groups. National borders matter or they don’t depending on how they affect those groups.
The drive to put Americans into groups and dispense their rights and privileges based on membership in those groups not only undermines our sense of who we are; it erodes the principles by which we govern ourselves, not least of which is the principle that we should govern ourselves. —Editor
THE PHENOMENAL GROWTH of the Mexican-American population presents a number of challenges for policymakers. In 2014, more than 35 million people of Mexican origin were living in the United States, including 11.7 million who were born in Mexico, accounting for 27.6 percent of all immigrants living in the United States. All told, the share of the total population made up of immigrants is 13.3 percent, approaching levels not seen since the turn of the last century.
But immigration has changed dramatically since the huddled masses of Europe landed in New York in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and in ways that should worry those concerned about preserving the American project for future generations. Whereas in previous migrations newcomers were encouraged by authorities to adopt American mores and habits, for more recent waves, assimilation is no longer the official goal. The transnational multicultural movement has succeeded at replacing established norms of citizenship, social cohesion, and national interests with new doctrines that are recasting, not preserving, the American experiment.
This new trend upends the centuries-old rule that, as Louis Brandeis put it, immigrants must first attain “complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment,” and then acquire political power. In the new social model, immigrants and their descendants are suborned with benefits to demand society’s accommodation of a separate status. Instead of encouraging adaptation among immigrants, in the words of political scientist Peter Skerry, “activists insist that the mainstream adapt itself to them. In essence, they argue that barrio values be brought into the public sphere unmediated.”
Conservatives who want to return to the assimilationist model must also contend with something else. An often-missing piece is the Mexican government’s own contribution to American multiculturalism, given that it now plays community organizer for millions of Mexican-Americans.
Mexican leaders have worked for more than a century to exert influence over immigrants and their descendants living north of the border. Their efforts offer just one example of how the ethnic-identity movement has taken root in this country since the 1960s. In this case, the Chicano construct can be used by third-party forces to generate conflicted loyalties. Mexico and its transnational supporters of course insist that there is no contradiction in having people remain loyal to Mexico while simultaneously engaging in the political and civic life of the United States. This is a claim we should examine.
In the new social model, immigrants and their descendants are suborned with benefits to demand society’s accommodation of a separate status. Instead of encouraging adaptation among immigrants, in the words of political scientist Peter Skerry, “activists insist that the mainstream adapt itself to them.”
What is unquestionable is that, for good or for ill, as the population of Mexican-Americans has grown over the past quarter-century, the Mexican government has created and nurtured a powerful web that seeks to exert influence over America’s increasingly dominant minority politics. For Mexican-Americans, the vibrant and distinct culture that lies just across the long and porous southern border is constantly reinforced through a vast, influential network of consulates and interest groups across the United States, including the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). As two leading (and sympathetic) Mexican-American scholars put it, “No other country has this diplomatic infrastructure within the borders of the most powerful nation in the world.”
The “Network of Networks”
Over the past several decades, Mexico has not just increased the number of its consulates in the United States—25 percent growth in just the past 15 years—but also the nature of their work. The consulates now coordinate heavily with the Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME), which is the successor to a number of programs started by the Mexican government in the 1980s to mobilize the Mexican-American community on issues affecting Mexico.
The consulate network does not hesitate to take sides in politics. It played key supporting roles in both of President Obama’s most controversial domestic policies. With Obamacare, health navigators enrolled people inside Mexican consulates—technically foreign soil—and according to one official, it isn’t clear whether illegal immigrants may have actually been enrolled. The consulates also provided field muscle in the two key immigration policies of the Obama administration—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) of 2012, which gave temporary deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought illegally as children; and the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) of 2014.
The consulates have paid DACA processing fees for those who cannot pay, and went even further with DAPA. Within days, the Mexican consul in Sacramento announced a raft of helpful measures: free workshops on applying, one-on-one legal advice, and, again, financial support for fees. President Peña Nieto was at the White House within weeks to praise DAPA as “very intelligent and audacious,” and to announce, with Obama by his side, that Mexicans would henceforth be able to obtain birth certificates at the consulates, instead of having to travel to Mexico. This April, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States with a veteran diplomat, Carlos Manuel Sada Solana, whose main mission is to lobby against presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Ambassador Sada Solana, who has headed consulates from New York to Los Angeles, told Bloomberg that he aimed to use the network to this end.
As eyebrow raising as it may be to have another country’s consulate network play such an active partisan role in divisive domestic politics, however, it is their role in creating a cadre of Mexican-American leaders that could have the more lasting impact. The IME has personnel embedded in the 50 consulates throughout the United States. They hold local elections so Mexican-Americans can select who will participate in the IME informative conferences. These Jornadas Informativas are a key way that the IME builds and nurtures a force of Mexican-American leaders. The consulates, the CCIME, and the conferences nurture leadership capital on the American side of the border by honing activists’ political skills. Former council members and conference attendees are encouraged to remain in contact, and indeed almost one-third of council members are conference alumni.
Fortifying bonds with Mexico—even for people naturalized or born in the United States—is always a priority. Last year the Los Angeles consulate, the biggest in this country, announced that Mexican-Americans would be able to reclaim land they or their ancestors had left. According to Consul Sada Solana, “This is important, given that we have 35 million Mexicans in the United States, of whom no fewer than 30 percent have some land issue in Mexico” (emphasis added).
But do ethnic organizations actually represent the Mexican-American grassroots? Political scientist Peter Skerry describes groups like NCLR and MALDEF as participating in “elite network politics.” The network has “weak community ties” but wins policy fights because it partakes in “a process of specialization and professionalization by which politics become more and more an insiders’ game … a politics increasingly turned in upon itself and insulated from the surrounding social flux.” Skerry singles out MALDEF as a group that “has no members whatsoever in the communities it represents, and therefore no real bonds of accountability to those communities. The organization gets most of its funding from a few corporations and large foundations—in particular the Ford Foundation.”
What these organizations lack in community accountability, they make up for in influence. MALDEF in particular has been highly influential for decades. In the 1970s, it played a crucial role in extending the Voting Rights Act to Hispanics on the spurious notion that English-language ballots were akin to poll taxes used in the Jim Crow South. More recently, one of President Obama’s first appointments in 2009 was that of MALDEF president John Trasviña to be assistant secretary at HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
La Raza is disconnected from the communities it purports to serve. Though it has more than 260 affiliates nationwide, the affiliates do not vote for the board that runs La Raza. Nor does La Raza rely on members for funding.
La Raza is similarly disconnected from the community it purports to serve. Though NCLR has more than 260 affiliates nationwide, the affiliates do not vote for the board that runs NCLR. Nor does NCLR rely on members for funding. Charitable groups like the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supply about one-third of its funding; another third comes from Fortune 500 corporations; and most of the rest comes from U.S. government grants. Instead, NCLR affiliates contribute to the cause in other, politically convenient ways. They are overwhelmingly devoted to training committed activists that will mobilize for open immigration, for the environment, for the “Black Lives Matter” movement, against inequality, and to get out the vote against candidates like Cory Gardner in Colorado and Rick Scott in Florida.
The Transnational Agenda
Helpful though they are, elite connections and funding alone cannot explain the success of Mexico’s efforts; for that, it is necessary to look to America’s leadership. In today’s American progressive globalists, Mexico has encountered strategic allies who have transcended hard-nosed, nationalist views about loyalty and patriotism and have no qualms about seeing the immigrant population as being shared. The transnational school of thought believes that borders are eroding—both because the information age frees people to contact cousins in remote villages from their basements in Queens or Leeds, and because supposed problems like climate change require global governance.
American champions of transnationalism cheer the IME’s advisory council as “a unique model of binational civic engagement,” as the left-leaning Migration Policy Institute put it in 2010. Adherents of transnationalism posit that having a political foot on each side of the border actually helps immigrants integrate further into the American political system. Professor Peter Schuck has proposed that by allowing immigrants to maintain dual loyalty, the U.S. government creates a welcoming environment that legitimizes its own authority. Likewise, a 2010 MPI paper praises the IME for taking on a “task traditionally reserved for receiving-country institutions. … Grounded in the belief that a better integrated immigrant benefits the individual migrant, the sending country, and the receiving country, IME’s integration work represents one of the most significant, if overlooked, factors in US immigrant integration policy.”
In today’s American progressive globalists, Mexico has encountered strategic allies who have transcended hard-nosed, nationalist views about loyalty and patriotism and have no qualms about seeing the immigrant population as being shared.
The apparent contradiction is explained away by transnationalism’s tenet that borders will become less meaningful over time. According to a 2001 binational panel organized by the Carnegie Endowment and supported by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, “[O]ver the long term, it is possible to conceive of a North America with gradually disappearing border controls—in which each country takes responsibility for its people and their actions and is actively sensitive to the concerns of each partner on issues of national and economic security—and with permanent migration remaining at moderate levels.” The model is the European Union, said the panel, “particularly for the long term.”
The Obama administration fully subscribes to transnationalism, which may explain why Mexico has been so cooperative about the president’s most controversial policies. Obama’s “New Americans” initiatives—which started rolling out days after the November 2014 executive action on immigration—all rely heavily on the integrationist model.
The Strategic Action Plan released in April 2015 by President Obama’s “Task Force on New Americans” relies heavily on transnational thinking. It was co-authored by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and former NCLR senior vice president, and does not mention assimilation, patriotism, or Americanization in 54 pages. Instead, it puts the onus on how “welcoming communities” must accommodate immigrants, calling for greater sanction of “diverse cultural practices” and maintaining “native language proficiency to preserve culture.” And, of course, it recommends greater political engagement for “New Americans.”
All too often transnational governance ends up in the hands of technocrats with no need to periodically seek the consent of those who pay their salaries and bear the brunt of their actions.
Another transnational gambit is the “Stand Stronger” Citizenship Awareness Campaign launched in September 2015. It urges streamlining the naturalization process for “eligible immigrants,” which would presumably include the millions to whom Obama wants to grant amnesty.
The Obama administration’s success in advancing the cause of transnationalism can also be measured in funding to favored groups and causes. A 2012 Judicial Watch investigation uncovered that, from her perch at the Domestic Policy Council, Muñoz had dispensed considerable largesse. NCLR “has benefitted handsomely from Muñoz’s quick rise in the Obama Administration.” Its funding “more than doubled the year Muñoz joined the White House, from $4.1 million to $11 million.” Most of the money (60 percent) came from the Department of Labor (then headed by Hilda Solis, a winner of the IME’s Ohtli Prize, who also has close ties to La Raza). NCLR affiliates also saw their haul of federal money skyrocket after Muñoz’s appointment. An NCLR offshoot, Chicanos Por La Causa, “saw its federal funding nearly double to $18.3 million following Muñoz’ [sic] appointment,” said Judicial Watch.
By enticing people to separate into groups with racial preferences, the American government has begotten a nation of racial and ethnic interest groups.
Natural Reactions and Conservative Responses
What makes many Americans uncomfortable with transnationalism is their intuition that the United States has a unique culture, including traits such as an inordinate attachment to (many foreigners say obsession with) the Constitution, a culture of volunteerism, and a widespread derivation of satisfaction from a hard day’s work—something not found everywhere. They sense that America’s ahistorical degree of freedom and prosperity is somehow connected to these virtues.
No laws have likely been broken by Mexico’s consulates or the Latino organizations. Columbia University professor Rodolfo de la Garza has remarked, however, that it is instructive that Mexican leaders always deny that they seek to create a Mexican-American pressure group “when they address non-Hispanic American audiences, but indicate that they seek such a relationship in meetings limited to or dominated by Mexican-Americans.” As the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte reminds us, we should remember that the last foreign leader to insist that immigrants and their children “to the seventh generation” retain loyalty to their ancestral land was Benito Mussolini.
While it may seem obvious, the argument against Mexico’s agenda and America’s complicity should start with the recognition that different nations will have different valid interests, and those interests may conflict. More specifically, for all the superficial appeal of transnationalism and global governance, they are the enemies of democracy and local accountability. Laws should reflect a country’s culture and character, and those who enact them should be answerable to an electorate small enough to agree on the important issues. As we have seen with the European Union, all too often transnational governance ends up in the hands of technocrats with no need to periodically seek the consent of those who pay their salaries and bear the brunt of their actions. Transnationalism becomes, in everything but name, a cover for an oligarchy unmoored from the electorate.
A conservative response must start with understanding that the multicultural, transnational social model, which they have allowed to grow unchecked, poses a real danger. Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexican Consul General in Sacramento, describes clearly how it happened: “It is important to mention the recognition that the United States gives ethnicity as a basis for political organization. This legitimizes the ethnic mobilization of Mexican communities.” By enticing people to separate into groups with racial preferences, the American government has only begotten a nation of racial and ethnic interest groups. This approach has encouraged Mexican-Americans to see themselves as a single group, despite the fact that, as Skerry reminds us in his 1993 book, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, “it is certainly not self-evident what interests recently arrived illegal Mexican immigrants share with third-generation Mexican-American college graduates.”
The group identity construct also encourages all Latinos to adopt the idea that “like blacks, Mexican-Americans comprise a racial minority group.” Skerry continues: “This abstraction poses no problems for the ideologically oriented Chicano activists who see the world in such terms. … Yet this race idea is somewhat at odds with the experience of Mexican-Americans, over half of whom designate themselves racially as white.” As Harvard’s Alberto Alesina and Arnaud Devleeschauwer put it in their 2003 paper on ethnic fractionalization—considered the gold standard on the subject—when people are made to “persistently identify with a particular group, they form potential interest groups that can be manipulated by political leaders.”
Conservatives must remember that the enemy is not Mexican-Americans; the enemy is the ethnic-identity movement. Discrimination against Mexican-Americans abets that enemy.
The fact that the American government “designed policies granting explicit preference to members of diverse social groups” also did something else, as González Gutiérrez himself explained—it gave “people of Mexican descent the necessary motivation to mobilize politically toward a common ethnic identity, which in a broad sense is defined as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino.’” Why conservatives have blithely gone along with this reprogramming of America is baffling.
But conservatives must remember that the enemy is not Mexican-Americans; the enemy is the ethnic-identity movement. Discrimination against Mexican-Americans abets that enemy. Proposition 187, for example, which denied public services to people in the United States illegally, initially had strong support from Mexican-Americans. According to data from the Latino National Political Survey, 75.2 percent of Mexican-Americans even agreed with the statement “there are too many immigrants.” That was 1.4 percentage points higher than Anglos. And yet, when it came time to vote, a majority of Mexican-Americans voted against Proposition 187. The reason? “[H]ad it not been for the discriminatory fervor of the initiative’s sympathizers, Mexican-American voters would have approved Proposition 187 by an ample margin,” remembers González Gutiérrez. Conservatives must also be wary of autarkical temptations, and the purveyors of such enticements. They have always understood that only a sovereign nation whose citizens adhere to national civic virtues can be a confident international actor.
The adversaries to wage ideological war against are instead those in our society who preach multiculturalism: the professors who pine for Aztlan; the philanthropists who seek global governance; the groups that purport to represent Latinos but only seed activism and discourage patriotism.
As for the Mexican government, conservatives should point to the recent success of populist appeals as they explain how counterproductive it can be to insert meddling ambassadors into American politics. Mexico City should understand that much of the anxiety that so roils our national debates on immigration has to do with fear by a significant portion of Americans that today’s immigrants, the majority of whom are Hispanics (the majority of whom are of Mexican origin), are not assimilating as immigrants once did. By striving to ensure that Mexican-Americans do not assimilate culturally and patriotically, Mexico is not doing Mexican-Americans, or our domestic politics, any favors.
Mr. Gonzalez is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans (Crown Forum, 2014). A longer version of this article was first published in National Affairs, Summer 2016.