A Talk With Mexico’s Migration Chief Juan Hernández

Juan Hernández emerges as the architect of new Mexico-U.S. relations

HispanicOnline Staff

If anyone represents the spirit that infuses the new Mexican administration, it would have to be Juan Hernández.

A hybrid of two cultures, he is the first Mexican American to hold a Mexican Cabinet position, heading the presidential Office for Mexicans Abroad. The office, newly created by President Vicente Fox, seems tailor-made for Hernández, a trusted aide handpicked by the president to protect the rights of Mexican émigrés and their families, and, perhaps just as importantly, to reach out to the millions of Americans of Mexican ancestry.

HispanicOnline spoke with Hernández at length on the goals of his office and of the new Mexican order being forged by the government of Vicente Fox. Tops on Hernández’s agenda: legal status for migrant workers in the U.S., fair treatment for them and their families on both sides of the border, galvanizing employment opportunities at home to curb emigration, spurring Mexico-U.S. trade development, and forging stronger bonds with Mexican Americans, for starters.

“There are twenty million people, like myself, who have one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States, and we’re very proud of it.”

The concept is simple. “There are twenty million people, like myself, who have one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States, and we’re very proud of it,” he said. And it is this straddling of cultures, this symbiotic relationship, that, as Hernández sees it, must be cast in a new light and used for the benefit of both countries. “What we are trying to do, what this president is trying to do, is show that the twenty million Mexicans living in the United States are important to Mexico and are important to the United States,” he said.Hernández speaks in earnest. The role of these Mexicans living—and working—in the U.S. has emerged as the lynchpin of the Fox administration’s strategy to refashion Mexico into a true democracy, on a par with its North American neighbors and the European powers.

Not only does the new Mexico recognize the enormous financial import of the Mexican American community (individual remittances back home—nearly $10 billion annually—rank third behind tourism and oil export receipts as a major source of revenue): It is taking steps to harness the political and entrepreneurial savvy of Mexicans abroad to reverse the flow of migration, encourage direct investment, and spearhead political change at home and in the United States.

For Hernández, a Ph.D. in Mexican and English literature equally at home in both cultures, his role as point man for Fox’s ambitious plan is a natural fit.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1955 to an American mother and a Mexican father, Hernández grew up in his father’s home state of Guanajuato. He led a life of privilege, measured not in material possessions, but in freedom: The freedom to move easily across the border without risk; the freedom to learn, to have access to the best Mexican and American schools; the freedom to implement his ideas. A freedom not shared by all Mexicans, he quickly learned, and which early on awakened in him a strong sense of social responsibility.

“Leaving my home to go to the United States really opened my eyes,” he said. “Seeing so many people having to live in the shadows as criminals for doing the same thing that I was doing, but I had a little piece of paper that said it was OK.

“Seeing the need, people dying at the border, people not having their health needs met in the United States, seeing the need of education of Mexicans living over there, and realizing that these are people who are fueling the economy, but no one would speak for them,” he underscored.

“And then suddenly I hear Vicente Fox talking about them being heroes, and immediately, of course, I felt a kin spirit in someone who motivated me and then empowered me to go to work for these wonderful people.”

It was to be a fateful alliance. In March 1996, Fox, newly elected governor of Guanajuato, already advocated a radical change in Mexican politics that would lead him, four years later, to a stunning electoral victory that ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Hernández, then director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of Texas in Dallas, invited him to speak at the university. He also arranged a meeting with the Texas governor at the time, George W. Bush.

“The first conversation they had was related to migrants, to Mexicans abroad,” said Hernández. “Vicente Fox proposed to him that Texas and Guanajuato become partners in creating opportunities for Mexicans abroad and for the migrant-sending regions, as they call them.”

“There are several million Mexican people in the United States that are creating wealth for the United States and Mexico. These are all good people who have gone up there to work, they have found jobs, they are the builders of the country.”

That conversation, a scheduled five-minute meeting that stretched into 45, led to the creation of the Guanajuato Trade Office in Texas, a facility that Hernández initially directed and that serves as an “incubator for small and micro businesses from Guanajuato to do business in Texas” that is still operating today, Hernández said.Fox must have been impressed with the enterprising young professor, for, Hernández tells, as he was about to board his plane back to Guanajuato that day, the future president turned to him and asked: “Have you got any other ideas, Juan Hernández?”

“And I had written down four ideas, in case he asked, and so I said ‘Well, I sure do,’” Hernández recalled. “So he got back down off the plane, and there off the runway we went over ideas … and there on the spot he hired me to be his U.S. advisor and open up these types of trade [initiatives].” And so the Dallas professor became one of Fox’s most trusted allies, later joining Fox’s presidential campaign as his chief of staff and stumping for him among the Mexican communities in the U.S.

The groundwork during those years paid off; and with the election of George W. Bush in the United States, the understanding forged at that first meeting evolved into a “commitment for a partnership for progress” cemented when now presidents Bush and Fox met in February at Fox’s ranch in San Cristóbal. And Hernández, as in 1996, was there.

An articulate man who switches effortlessly from Spanish into English and back again, Hernández has embraced his task as cultural and political liaison, lobbying personally for increased labor rights, health benefits, and education for Mexicans in the U.S. “Texas just passed a law for the migrants; they can now go to the university and pay state tuition. It is the first state to open up,” he noted.

He travels often to the United States, visiting Mexican American communities throughout the U.S. at least once a week. Although he is now on leave from the Texas university system, he continues to speak once or twice a semester and is putting together a course on U.S.-Mexico relations. The author of seven books on literary and political subjects, he is currently working on a bilingual oral history of the Mexican emigrant experience to be titled Heroes: Mexican Migrants.

“We must not only have a free flow of goods and services, but also start working for a free flow of people.”

He argues passionately about the need to obtain legal status for all Mexican workers in the U.S., although he shuns the political vocabulary, preferring to stay away from what he calls “explosive terms” such as “guest worker” programs. “There are several million Mexican people in the United States that are creating wealth for the United States and Mexico. These are all good people who have gone up there to work, they have found jobs, they are the builders of the country.

“These individuals need to be legalized, they need to be able to come home and see their families and not have to cross a dangerous border; they need to be able to complain if the boss is not paying them for the amount of hours that they worked; they need to be able to have living conditions that are proper, with dignity; to have driver’s licenses; to use the banks in the United States. They need their dignity, instead of having to live like criminals.”

The U.S. urgently needs people to fill the several thousand new jobs available yearly in the United States, he added. “We need to find a win-win agreement between the two countries to provide people for those jobs,” he said.

In the meantime, the border remains a thorny issue. Just a few weeks ago, Hernández came under fire for appearing to endorse the distribution of first aid kits, quickly dubbed “survival kits,” to help illegal border crossers survive the dangers of the rugged frontier line. Not so, he said. While the government does distribute basic first aid kits to impoverished rural areas in seventeen states (not coincidentally the heaviest exporters of migrants), and has done so for the last ten years, the objective is not to encourage illegal emigration. As if to prove it, Hernández has just filmed a series of public-service videos, to be shown on the bus line that transports some 350,000 passengers a month to northern Mexico, near the U.S. border, exhorting Mexicans not to fall prey to smugglers or risk an illegal crossing, but to look for opportunities at home.

In typical fashion, he does the job himself, addressing his countrymen directly. The videos complement spots on national TV also warning of the dangers of crossing illegally, and are part of the most recent U.S.-Mexico agreement on migration reached in June following the deaths of fourteen illegal immigrants in the Arizona desert. “My conscience forces me to do all I can to save lives, even if it’s just one life,” he said.

He is also working side by side with Fox to ensure that Mexican émigrés, when they return to Mexico, are treated well on the Mexican side of the border-that they are not shaken down for bribes or harassed by unscrupulous officials, and that the families in Mexico of migrants in the U.S. have social security and health benefits.

Equally important is to create opportunities in Mexico so that people do not feel the need to leave, Hernández said. To achieve that, his office has put together a multi-pronged approach that includes incentives such as matching government subsidies, for Mexican American entrepreneurs who establish businesses in their home communities; and it is encouraging successful Mexicans abroad to “adopt” areas of great poverty, especially 90 micro-regions with a high rate of emigration to the United States. Known as the Proyecto Padrino, the program grew out of Hernández’s contact with over 500 hometown associations of Mexican Americans who were already providing aid to their churches and communities back home.

“It’s very exciting. We have gotten an incredible response,” said Hernández, who confesses that “the padrino idea came from successful Mexicans abroad; it was really not my idea.”

They are padrinos like Jaime Lucero, who slipped into the U.S. illegally in 1975 and found work in the kitchen of a New York restaurant. Twenty-five years later, he has his own clothing distribution company, Gold & Silver, Inc., and has now invested four million dollars in his home state of Puebla, money that will generate 7,000 new jobs in a new women’s clothing factory.

Then there is Eduardo Nájera, of the Dallas Mavericks, who has become a padrino for education. Through his efforts, Hernández said, companies that sponsor the NBA star are paying for 5,000 scholarships for students in these 90 micro-regions at the middle, high school, and university levels.  

Eduardo Nájera

Hispanic American organizations are also linking up with Hernández’s office to sponsor his projects. The League of United Latin American Citizens has agreed to create a network of attorneys throughout the United States to defend the legal rights of migrants in the U.S., Hernández said. This will complement a migrants-rights office within the Mexican attorney general’s office to prosecute offenders on both sides of the border.

But a lot of these problems would simply disappear if there were simply more open policies in place, he said.

Hernández is emphatic. “We must not only have a free flow of goods and services, but also start working for a free flow of people.

“The border seems to become more and more a limitation the farther away you get from the border. But those who live in El Paso, those who live in Laredo, those who live in Nuevo Laredo, those who live in Ciudad Juárez, know that the border, in many senses, is an imaginary line,” he pointed out.

He takes the idea further. “The United States, Mexico, and Canada should be seen really as a single economic bloc, not as competitors.” But while looking at the big picture, his focus is, again, on the building blocks. While praising the success of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Hernández advocates taking NAFTA a step beyond to “help the small and micro companies to link up between the United States, Canada, and Mexico; then you will see, for example, job development just skyrocketing.”

He continues to implement tried and true tactics. Based on the success of the Guanajuato Trade Office in Texas, “we have now created the Mexico Trade Centers, for all 32 Mexican states,” the first of which was inaugurated recently in Santa Ana, California, he said. Because one of the pre-requisites of participation in this project is that the Mexican companies incorporate in the U.S., they become, in a sense, American corporations “with all the responsibilities and benefits that provides,” he noted.

Hernández is confident the changes will come. Already there’s momentum building in the United States and in Mexico toward positive change that won’t be stopped, he said, a drive he attributed in great part to the election of two presidents who share a deep understanding of the migration issue. Indeed, the two nations are set to announce new migration agreements come September.

And Mexico is ready to take its place at the table, he said. “We are not going to pretend that these issues do not exist; on the contrary, we are going to put them on the table and discuss them.”

“Before, we pretended like we were not even neighbors.”




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