Gov. Jerry Brown and a sizable California delegation leave for Mexico today on a three-day trade mission, but his trip symbolizes much more than that.
Brown’s visit illustrates how California stands apart from other border states such as Arizona and Texas, where Republican governors fan the flames of ethnic tensions by portraying Mexico as an enemy state.
The mission to Mexico comes 20 years after former California Gov. Pete Wilson rode to an easy re-election by whipping up anti-Mexico fervor among voters.
What a difference two decades has made in California, with a seismic shift in demographics, policy and attitudes that are becoming more obvious and significant by the day.
Brown travels to Mexico as the Latino population has grown in the state and the success rate of negative, ethnic politics has shrunk.
Last week, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove said on the floor of Congress: “The mass incursion of our borders will continue and our nation’s sovereignty will slowly fade away.”
It was the same type of inflammatory border nonsense that Republicans use in other states to whip up their aging base.
But McClintock’s words barely registered a blip in a state where McClintock’s party is almost irrelevant politically.
Meanwhile, the business of California – and the United States – is business with Mexico.
Brown is jetting to Mexico City today because Mexico is California’s top trading partner.
According to the California Chamber of Commerce, California exports to Mexico reached nearly $24 billion in 2013 alone. And Mexico buys 14.2 percent of all California exports.
I’m a 51-year-old son of Mexican immigrants and in my lifetime, Mexico is expected to surpass Canada as the top-trading partner of the United States.
The (Woodrow) Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy forum focusing on global issues, describes Mexico and the U.S. as “partners” and not competitors.
“Imports from Mexico are therefore unlike imports from any extra-continental partner in the way they support U.S. jobs and exports,” wrote Wilson center experts in a recent report.
“A full 40% of the content in U.S. imports from Mexico is actually produced in the United States. This means that forty cents of every dollar spent on imports from Mexico comes back to the U.S., a quantity ten times greater than the four cents returning for each dollar paid on Chinese imports.”
Six million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico, including nearly 700,000 based in California, according to the Wilson Center.
U.S. carmakers rely on Mexico as a major market to the tune of nearly 11 billion in exports.
Mexican companies have increased their holdings to nearly $12 billion in the U.S., a number sure to grow.
These facts contradict the overheated rhetoric about immigration that is a narcotic for politicians and talk radio hosts.
The evolving story of Mexico, the U.S. and California as a partnership is not as sexy as the overheated border stories we’re fed every day.
This is why too many in the public are still stuck with an outdated image of Mexico.
For example: Last week, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña – Mexico’s foreign minister – was actually in Sacramento, though not much was reported about his visit.
While here, Meade said that California’s economy could benefit even more from trade with Mexico if the U.S. ever passed immigration reform.
“We are looking ahead to a time when Mexico and the U.S. will benefit not just from allegiances but from an increased network of cross-border ties between our societies,” Meade said to media members here last week. “Lack of immigration reform is holding all of these prospects back.”
Meade also met with a local group called “Cien Amigos,”which means 100 friends in Spanish. It is made up largely of influential people within Sacramento’s Mexican and Mexican American communities. Carlos González Gutiérrez, the Mexican consul general based in Sacramento, organized the group. Its purpose is to promote a more realistic portrait of Mexico in the United States and to recognize and encourage more trade and more economic opportunities between Mexico and California.
Just as important, Cien Amigos can help calm the politically tinged Mexico hysteria that is encouraged by the more strident voices in American politics. González told me that members of Cien Amigos were instrumental in lobbying the California State University system to drop its ban on student travel to Mexico last year.
In future years, it would be interesting to see if Cien Amigos and groups like it can approach the influence that prominent U.S.-based Jewish leaders have when advocating for Israel.
Immigration from Mexico is as significant to California and the U.S. today as German and Italian immigration was to America a century ago.
“Mexico, which shares a nearly 2,000-mile border with the U.S., is the source of the largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States,” wrote Jens Manuel Krogstad and Michael Keegan, of the Pew Research Center, in a recent report.
Between 1890 and 1919, nearly 20 million European immigrants came to the U.S. Their descendants helped shape the nation.
From the mid-1960s to about 2010, roughly 40 million Mexican immigrants came to the U.S. – a wave that has crested and statistically has ended.
Brown is traveling to Mexico because the influence of that wave is already felt in California politics and will only grow.
Because of that wave of immigration, the word “Mexican” will hopefully cease to be a dirty word in American politics in my lifetime.
If all that and more happens, we can look back and say California led the way.