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Dr. Amy Erica Smith Interpretation

FOCUS: Critical Conversations with Art

Published onSep 23, 2020
Dr. Amy Erica Smith Interpretation

Early twentieth-century Mexican dictator Porfírio Díaz once famously remarked to a journalist, “Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States.” Díaz captured the ambivalent familiarity of the relationship between the United States and its southern neighbors. People, goods, and services—from immigrants to automobiles—all move between the countries of Latin America and the U.S.

The relationship is one of deep interdependence. The wealth of the U.S., as well as its relatively high wages and standard of living, attract migration and business opportunities. In other words, some of the same forces that lead the U.S. to maintain a trade deficit with Latin America also make the U.S. a destination for immigrants originating south of the border. At the same time, many regional value chains are highly integrated, as when, say, a car, contains parts built in different countries. As a result, the top U.S. exports to Latin America are the also major Latin American exports to the U.S.: machinery, electrical machinery, vehicles, and mineral fuel and oil. The same goes for people, as humans move back and forth across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Dating at least from the mid-twentieth century, prior U.S. presidential administrations took relatively similar approaches to illegal and legal cross-border flows. Though Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were partisan rivals, they both promoted the normative value of diversity in legal immigration from Latin America, while emphasizing the need to reduce undocumented immigration. By contrast, the current administration of President Donald Trump has taken a more isolationist and populist approach to U.S.-Latin American affairs. Trump’s approach to immigration from Latin America is different than that of his predecessors in several ways, including a more hawkish and critical rhetorical tone about immigrants (both legal and undocumented), restrictive approach to legal immigration, and harsher crackdowns on illegal immigration.

On a personal note, the Luis Jiménez sculpture is one of my very favorite things on ISU’s campus. I grew up in Texas, where Hispanic culture and Mexican immigration were all around me, a part of the cultural water in which we all swam. After college, I worked as an Americorps VISTA for a year on the Texas-Mexico border in Laredo, where we worked with rural communities of immigrants (both legal and undocumented) on the U.S. side of the border. Sometimes friends and I would go to “el otro lado” (the other side) of the Rio Grande river for a day to go shopping or to a restaurant in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo, right across from Laredo.

One day, walking around in a tiny town on the northern side of the border, I walked down to the Rio Grande. I could see the opposite bank easily—the Rio Grande isn’t much wider than our own Skunk River at that point. Standing there on the dusty soil, amidst low brush and scraggly mesquite trees, feet from the river dividing our countries, I thought about the differences in the life chances of a baby born where I was standing and a baby born on the opposite bank. A baby born where I was standing would have a higher chance of surviving to adulthood, becoming literate, and being able to get enough to eat every day. I could feel deep in the pit of my stomach why a father like the one in this sculpture would risk everything to bring his loved ones to be able to stand where I was at that moment. Crossing to “el otro lado” is an act of intergenerational hope for one’s own children.

- Dr. Amy Erica Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science, Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean's Professor, Iowa State University, Wilson Center Fellow and Carnegie Fellow

Note: The first half of this text is adapted from Mamone, Ignacio, and Amy Erica Smith. (2019) “Crossing Borders: U.S. Foreign Policy in Latin America.” In American Foreign Policy under Trump: Challenges, Changes and Continuity, eds. Richard Mansbach and James McCormick. New York: Routledge.

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