While Mexico is deeply divided over a tumultuous drug war and tough economic times, the nation can always find unity in one sacred-cow issue: defending its migrants in El Norte. Almost every family in the country has members in the U.S., many sweating on fields, construction sites or in restaurants, and sending home dollars to keep ramshackle villages and city barrios alive. So when Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain joked about a killer electric fence to keep migrants out, political electric shocks surged rapidly south of the Rio Grande. From pulpits by the border to editorial offices in the capital, priests and editors vented their anger at comments they called "stupid," "barbaric" and "shameful."
But even if Cain's comments by themselves can be dismissed as an unsuccessful attempt at humor that produced fury instead, Mexican commentators and congressman have voiced concern about a bigger political picture. In the run-up to the Republican primaries, several candidates have been outbidding each other over who can be toughest over the southern border. Within their discourses, the issue of illegal immigration has become mixed up with that of keeping Mexico's drug war from spilling into the U.S. Pundits in Mexico fear that if this rhetoric carries over into the 2012 presidential election, it will exasperate both antimigrant and cross-border tensions. "In this environment, the electoral weapon has been used to demonize migrant workers and paint them as being the cause of the lack of jobs and insecurity," an editorial in Mexico City's La Jornada newspaper declared Monday. "Each one of these excessive verbal statements increases the danger, discrimination and exploitation that foreign workers many of them Mexican face in the United States."
Cain made his comments on Saturday at a campaign stop in Cookeville, Tenn. "We'll have a real fence, 20 ft. high with barbed wire, electrified, with a sign on the other side that says, 'It can kill you,'" Cain said to raucous applause. "What do you mean insensitive? What is insensitive is when they come to the United States across our border and kill our citizens and kill our border-patrol people." The following day, Cain clarified the statement was a joke, not a real proposal. "That is not a serious plan," Cain said. "I've also said America needs to get a sense of humor. That is a joke, O.K.?"
However, few in Mexico could see the funny side of the comments. Ciudad Juárez's Bishop Renato Ascencio León said following his Sunday mass that the Republican candidate was "ridiculous." "In many places, like Germany, they are taking down barriers. Here they are putting them up," he said. "Many come from the United States into Mexico without any papers at all." On a national radio show, popular journalist Carmen Aristegui said Cain's comments were gravely concerning. "We are seeing a rise in extremism in the United States," Aristegui said. "These ideas are absurd, stupid."
On the streets of Mexico City, many locals said they were concerned about the tone in the American electoral debate. "How can you joke about killing poor people who are searching for a better life?" asks Jaime Carrillo, 42, an accountant. "And what if this guy became President? These kinds of comments would cause tension between our countries." Presidential hopeful Rick Perry also provoked ire earlier this month when he suggested that U.S. troops may have to cross into Mexico to fight drug cartels. Mexico's ambassador to the U.S. swiftly replied that "U.S. troops on Mexican soil is not on the table." Candidate Mitt Romney has also waded into the issue, criticizing Perry for being too soft on the border, while saying that "illegal immigration burdens us and is a threat."
Migrant activists point out that the candidates are actually creating heat over an issue that has already been acted on in recent years. The number of undocumented migrants entering the U.S. has dropped sharply over the past decade, thanks to increased security and fewer American jobs. Back in 2000, the border patrol made more than 1.6 million apprehensions on the southern border. This fell to just over 1 million in 2005 and to 404,000 by last year.
In a migrant shelter in the northern edge of Mexico City, several hopefuls lamented that it is much tougher to cross the border than before. "We have to find new places to get over and there are more agents," says Manuel de Jesus Contreras, 37, who had traveled from Honduras. Contreras had previously worked as a security guard in Seattle but was deported because of a lack of papers. "The job situation in the United States is harder now as well. But I am determined to make it and find something. I have children to feed. I don't want to hurt or kill anybody. I just want to be able to support my family."