I remember talking politics with Felipe Calderón eight years ago at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where we were both mid-career students.
This week, Calderon returned to our alma mater in a different capacity: as president of Mexico.
It was part of a quick swing though the United States that — besides the Harvard speech — included stops in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.
Calderón’s visit was meant to focus attention on the Mexican immigrant community in the United States, and our guest set the tone early by passing up the chance to meet with President Bush or address Congress. Instead, he chose
grassroots appeals to governors, activists, and immigrant groups.
All of this may have taken place on U.S. soil, but it was designed to send a message to Calderón’s constituents at home in Mexico. The message: “I hear you.”
Calderón is earning praise at home for reforming the tax system and launching a $25 billion public works initiative to build highways, bridges, and other projects. But he is also getting criticism for not being vocal enough in protesting what many Mexicans see as the harsh and unfair treatment of their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers in the United States.
It’s a new world south of the border. It used to be that Mexicans who stayed in Mexico didn’t give a thought to those who fled to the United States for a better tomorrow. Now they think about them all the time, and they’re demanding that their leaders think about them too — and defend them against what they see as abuse, racism, and exploitation by los Americanos.
Remember, CNN reaches into Mexico and so our friends to the south are well acquainted with el Lou Dobbs.
At first, Calderón didn’t seem to understand that part of his responsibility as president was to serve not just the 110 million Mexicans who live in Mexico but also the millions more who live in the United States. In his first year in office, he focused on fighting drug cartels and investing in Mexico’s poorest regions so, ideally, people can find enough opportunity south of the border that they don’t have to go north of it.
But Calderón figured out in a hurry that Mexicans also care a great deal about their loved ones to the north and remain in their debt. And he’s playing catch up. Last year alone, Mexican migrants in the United States sent home $23 billion in remittances, or almost twice what Mexico took in from tourism.
That money goes into private hands, but it soon becomes public funds. Grandma gets a few dollars through Western Union or a bank deposit. But Grandma doesn’t put the money in her mattress. She pays rent, buys groceries, and pays her electric bill. And so the money goes everywhere and keeps the Mexican economy humming along.
Calderón understands this perfectly. And while he assured the audience at Harvard that he has no interest in sending more Mexicans to the United States and that he only wants to protect those already here, you’d have to be incredibly naïve to believe that. Mexico has no real economic incentive to secure the border and stop the cash flow.
But everything comes at a price. And the price for Mexico is that it is losing — perhaps forever — millions of its most daring and selfless citizens, who now find themselves in a foreign land facing a wave of public sentiment that is becoming increasingly choppy.
They need a defender — even if it happens to be, ironically, the president of the country that cast them afloat.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.