Texas and California – two states that are big enough and diverse enough to be small countries – joined the United States before and after a war with Mexico in the mid-1800s. Since then the their paths have diverged, as have their relationships with the nation’s southern neighbor. Now those dynamics are changing yet again, possibly to California’s benefit.
This state’s relations with Mexico began to fray in the 1990s, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson led a campaign to vilify undocumented immigration, if not the immigrants themselves. Searching for an issue to help drive his re-election campaign (and then an aborted run for president), Wilson backed Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to people in the country illegally. He compared undocumented immigration to a foreign invasion and sent the National Guard to police the border.
Texas’ approach at the time was very different, reaching out to Mexico to develop closer economic and cultural ties. Then-Gov. George W. Bush managed to articulate support for secure borders without demonizing those who sought to cross without permission. Bush opposed Proposition 187 and courted his fellow governors south of the border.
“Friends bring out the best in each other,” Bush said in that speech. “May our friendship bring much good to both of our countries.”
Wilson’s successor, Democrat Gray Davis, sought to repair California’s relationship with Mexico, while Rick Perry, who followed Bush as governor of Texas, began to sound more like Wilson. Now, a generation later, the transformation is complete.
New Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he extend his state’s National Guard deployment while beefing up a state police presence at a cost of more than $700 million over two years. His Department of Public Safety has warned college students not to travel to Mexico over spring break because of the perceived danger from drug cartels. Last month, police shot and killed an unarmed Mexican immigrant in the town of Grapevine.
But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature hosted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Brown has courted investment from Mexican businesses. California once again has begun issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, reversing a ban established by Wilson in 1994. California’s Dream Act laws offer financial aid to undocumented students, and the state has limited the interaction between local law enforcement and immigration authorities to reduce deportations. Polls show California voters are more accepting of immigrants than ever.
“California has displaced Texas as the spark plug in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico,” Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said in a recent talk to the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, the Morning News reported. “Now California is the one, from a public policy point of view, leading the way in terms of how to rethink, engage and create new trans-border ties with Mexico.”
Texas remains by far the biggest U.S. trading partner with Mexico; California is a distant second. But if Mexican businesses and entrepreneurs feel unwelcome in Texas, it would be natural to focus more attention here.
Regardless of economic benefit, building closer ties with Mexico is the right thing to do.