Report on "Cross-Border Dialogues between the United States and Mexico"
A Seminar on Binational Civil Society Linkages
June 17, 2003

On June 17th, 2003 The Mexico Institute hosted a two-panel seminar entitled "Cross-Border Dialogues between the United States and Mexico." This seminar was of particular importance given the growing impact that hometown associations, unions, environmental organizations, and other civil society organizations that operate "across borders" have on the bilateral relationship. The seminar celebrated the publication of the book Cross-Border Dialogues, edited by David Brooks and Jonathan Fox (La Jolla: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 2003), and was co-sponsored by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UCSD and the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The first panel provided an overview of the book and an analysis of the Diálogos process, which brought together social organizations from Mexico and the United States between 1988 and 1997. David Brooks, Washington Bureau correspondent for La Jornada and the coordinator of the Diálogos process, described the genesis of the initiative, which began as a means for civil society organizations from both countries to share their concerns and opinions on the binational and trinational economic integration and its impact on domestic issues. This initiative produced many of the first contacts among these organizations from the two different countries. These discussions preceded NAFTA by several years, and made it possible for these organizations to play a role in the debate on free trade in North America when this became an important policy issue. According to Brooks, The Diálogos process created new linkages among civil society organizations and helped create a "space below" in the predominantly "top-down" integration process in North America. The process was one step in addressing the question of how to "democratize the transnational arena," which remains a vital issue in the context of globalization.

Jonathan Fox, professor and chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, argued that this process was a critical part of achieving "globalization from below." There have been a range of networks formed as a result of this process, and a few coalitions, but very few transnational movements (other than among Mexican migrants). The Dialogos process brought organizations together strongly around NAFTA, but this energy has not always been sustained. In fact, there is no sustained trend toward greater cohesion among the civil society organizations in the United States and Mexico, except among border organizations, Fox argued. These organizations mostly "think locally to act globally," responding to the needs of their constituencies, so it is easiest to sustain coalitions when there are specific objectives to be achieved by organizing across the border. He argued that, as a result, binational networks and coalitions have been able to affect national agendas regarding regional integration; however, they have not been capable of making powerful public and private institutions more accountable to social constituencies. Finally, he identified three changes in the trend of the debate that have happened in recent years: (1) immigrants have been becoming an important and proactive voice in Mexico and in some U.S. state governments; (2) significant cracks have developed in the "Washington Consensus" on economic reform; (3) as a logic outcome of 9/11, there have been tensions between regional integration and the current dominant idea of homeland security. These three changes influence the context of civil society organizing between the United States and Mexico.

A second panel discussed the processes of "Building Linkages" between Mexican and the U.S. social organizations in three arenas the environment, political rights of immigrants, and cooperation among labor unions. Mary E. Kelly, senior attorney of Environmental Defense, observed that before NAFTA, there were hardly any joint efforts carried out by Mexican and U.S. groups dealing with environmental affairs. Nonetheless, debates on NAFTA and its actual implementation caught the attention of such groups and generated networks among them so that "the discussion arrived to stay." In fact, the joint work that resulted has already achieved some outstanding accomplishments, including blocking some environmental hazardous developments and improving standards along the border. Working through the Environmental Commission that was created through NAFTA, these groups have also helped ensure the construction of wastewater treatment plants along the border and the extension of drinking water to border communities that did not have it previously. The attention that NAFTA focused on the border also generated attention from foundations to support this work and helped create an explosion of environmental groups on the Mexican side of the border.

Concerning the political rights of immigrants, Jesús Martínez Saldaña, assistant professor at California State University and advisor to the Michoacán state government, emphasized the fact that Mexican immigrants in the United States lack their most basic political right, voting, even though most of them (around 90 percent) meet the requirements established by Mexican laws to vote. This situation does not happen in developed countries, whose citizens are able to vote even when they are overseas. He noted that there are historical reasons for this policy of exclusion, having to do with the way that the one-party regime that operated in Mexico for 71 years addressed migrants. Today it also includes the fear of some Mexican politicians that such a significant number of votes coming form overseas would define elections' outcomes, since the number of potential Mexican voters in the United States represents around 15 percent of all current registered voters in Mexico. Nonetheless, he noted that Mexican migrants already play a vital role in Mexican politics, especially at the state and local level. In the state of Michoacán, for example, 36 percent of the state's 113 mayors have lived in the United States at some point (a third of them as undocumented migrants). This is leading many state governments to consider legislation to allow Mexicans abroad to vote in state elections. While some fear that giving Mexicans in the United States the right to vote in Mexico will dilute their political engagement in the United States, Martínez emphasized that people should be allowed to participate in their country of citizenship and that there is no reason why Mexicans who become U.S. citizens cannot be active participants in both their adopted country and their country of origin (and this process may even be mutually reinforcing).

Mark Anderson, past president of the Food and Allied Service Trades (FAST), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, described the history of increased union cooperation between Mexico and the United States. Prior to the late 1980s, relationships between unions in the two countries were primarily between the top leadership of the AFL-CIO and the Mexican Worker Confederation (CTM), which was a corporate member of the official party in power. Cooperation during the NAFTA negotiations was limited, however, by the CTM's decision to support the agreement as part of their alliance with the party in power. Gradually, U.S. unions have begun to develop relationships of solidarity with independent unions in Mexico and this has led to important opportunities for solidarity during strikes and at other critical junctures.

Prepared by Andrew Selee and Francisco Campos