Garcia-Ponce Mulls Mexican Perspectives on Migration

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani – Every year, thousands of migrants enter the United States through Mexico, the world’s largest migration corridor. On March 19, 2018, in a talk titled “The Paradox of Migration: Assessing Mexican Beliefs about the Inmigrante,” Omar García-Ponce evaluated Mexicans’ views about emigrants to the U.S. and Central American immigrants in Mexico.

With so much attention focused on Mexican migrants in the United States, views held by Mexicans regarding migrants in their own country go largely unexplored. With Mexico uniquely position as the world’s largest migration corridor, Omar García-Ponce—assistant professor of political science at UC Davis—considers this a wasted opportunity for insight into in-group and out-group attitudes toward migrants.

In 2014, thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed into the United States, heightening the migration crisis engulfing the U.S.Mexico border. Indeed, since the 1980s, Central Americans have increasingly migrated north to the U.S. and Mexico, often to escape violence, food-shortages and political instability affecting their homelands. 

“Anecdotally, Mexicans view Mexican immigrants to the U.S. in a positive way,” García-Ponce explained, “but tend to view immigrants from Central America with disdain.” In order to better understand these contrasting perspectives, he plans to conduct surveys across Mexico questioning the level of discrimination against Central Americans, and how those views are affected by Americans’ appraisal of Mexican migrants. 

Migrant crisis in Mexico

Central American migration to Mexico has significantly risen in the past few years. The migrants come mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. “They ride on top of cargo trains,” said García-Ponce, “which is of course very dangerous.” Migrants in these situations risk serious injury, endure extreme weather conditions, and are vulnerable to robbery and assault. 

Drug cartels increasingly target these Central American migrants, violating their human rights. Victims might be abducted, extorted, sold into sex slavery, or forced to work in mining camps. Reports even indicate that children are targeted for black-market schemes like pornography, prostitution, and organ harvesting.

Mexican authorities are largely unsympathetic to the Central American migrants. García-Ponce affirmed that Mexican migration officers are even more aggressive than American officers. In spite of all the abuses faced by Central American migrants, the Mexican government has yet to formulate a clear policy to address the problem. “I find it unbelievable,” he said.

Mexican beliefs about immigrants

Meanwhile, García-Ponce said, Mexicans tend to treat Central American immigrants the same way that many Americans treat undocumented Mexican immigrants—that is, with suspicion. He used as evidence the 2015 National Survey of Immigration, conducted by researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country’s leading research university.

According to the survey statistics, about 50% of Mexicans consider that migrants are taking jobs away from Mexicans. About half of respondents believe that immigrants damage the country’s culture. A little over a quarter also consider that immigrants generate crime. 

The survey reveals that the deepest negativity is directed against Central Americans. It indicates that, although most Mexicans believe that they respect the rights of migrants, they acknowledge treating immigrants from the United States and Europe with more respect than immigrants from Central America and Africa. When asked about trust of immigrants, most Mexicans indicated significant distrust of Salvadorans, Belizeans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans.

Such attitudes are strongest in Mexico’s northern and southern border states. Even though people from these areas do not believe that migration should be stopped, they do not support of open borders. Rather, they believe that immigration should be regulated to favor the needs of Mexicans. “It’s also in Southern Mexico were people are more against providing protection to Central American immigrants,” asserted García-Ponce.  

Measuring migrant dehumanization 

García-Ponce seeks to acquire more information on the Mexican perspective of the Central American immigrants by measuring blatant and subtle dehumanization. His plan is to collect data from 4,000-5,000 individuals in face-to-face surveys, over-sampling Mexico’s northern and southern regions where anti-immigrant beliefs are most significant.

Blatant dehumanization will be measured by showing participants a human evolutionary chart and asking them to select where immigrant groups fit within it. Subtle dehumanization will be measured by asking respondents to assess how accurately certain traits describe the immigrant groups. García-Ponce also plans to use an implicit association test (IAT), where words and images associated with Central American immigrants, Mexicans, and Americans are juxtaposed with categories associated with animals and humans.

Humanizing migrants

García-Ponce considers his experiment an opportunity to explore how humanizing narratives can counteract the negative effects of dehumanization. He plans to ask respondents to imagine life as an immigrant, and also will provide them with short vignettes of Central American migrant experiences, including their perilous journey. “These approaches work by presenting human suffering,” he said.

Part of his inspiration for this aspect of the project comes from notable Mexican movie director Alejandro Iñarritu’s conceptual virtual reality installation CARNE Y ARENA(Spanish for “Flesh and Sand”). The exhibit, organized in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, immersed visitors into a virtual reality sequence where they experienced the human condition of migrants and refugees crossing the U.S.Mexico border.

“The whole thing about CARNE Y ARENAis to feel the experience and to better understand the migrant,” García-Ponce concluded. “It has a big impact on people.”

This event was sponsored by the UC Davis Migration Research Cluster.

Learn more about Omar García-Ponce.