The last time I reported from Juárez, Mexico, about five years ago, it was the most murderous city in the world – a desert slaughterhouse for drug lords like Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán.
One evening a colleague and I popped into Juárez’s most famous bar, the Kentucky Club (supposedly the birthplace of the margarita). We had the place to ourselves. A homicide rate of more than 200 per 100,000 residents tends to depress nightlife.
It also discourages papal visits. Pope Francis’ stop in Juárez on Wednesday, the first by a Roman Catholic pontiff in a U.S.-Mexico border city, was a welcome reminder that less killing happens there today.
But one thing hasn’t changed about the border: It’s still the desperate finish line for hundreds of thousands of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants escaping the two-headed Hydra of gang violence and grinding poverty.
And it’s still where hundreds of them die each year trying to get into the U.S. – and, increasingly, to South Florida.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, came to Juárez expressly to remind the world of all that. More specifically, to remind Americans. Even more specifically, the Republicans and their presidential front-runner, Donald Trump.
Am I suggesting the Pope’s intentions were political as well as pontifical? Hell yes; I mean, heavens yes I am. The planet’s most serious humanitarian crises today involve immigration. So if you think Francis wasn’t in Juárez in part to counteract Trump’s smearing of migrants – people Trump called “drug dealers, rapists and murderers” last year – you probably also think His Holiness never gets angry. (He does: See this week’s video of him chewing out a fan who knocked him over.)
Francis’ border foray also slapped the Vatican seal of approval on efforts to increase the Latino vote – which has already been galvanized by Trump’s asinine rhetoric.
The voter-eligible numbers of Latinos (or Hispanics) are larger than ever, according to a new Pew Research Center study. Between the last presidential election in 2012 and this year’s vote, almost 4.5 million more Latinos will have turned 18 or become U.S. citizens. That’s especially true for Mexican-Americans – the folks most insulted by Trump – who make up two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population.
On Friday, Los Tigres del Norte – the Beatles of Mexican norteño music, the border’s soundtrack – bring their national tour to West Palm Beach. The playlist includes a voter registration project, Somos Más ’16. It exhorts Latinos “not to vote for racists,” while working to get more millennials – who make up almost half of Latino voters today – to the polls.
This ought to concern Republicans. But it probably won’t – because it obviously doesn’t concern a party that would nominate Trump. That’s why the GOP’s 2012 presidential choice, Mitt Romney, received a pitiful 27 percent of the Latino vote, a rout that helped President Obama win key battleground states like Florida.
So it seems sadly fitting that in the same week Pope Francis came to Juárez, urging us to “open our hearts” to migrants even if we can’t open our border to them, the Republican Party looks poised to close the door on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush’s presidential bid may well flame out on Saturday if he loses the South Carolina GOP primary election badly enough. And the chances of that happening ballooned Wednesday when South Carolina’s popular Republican governor, Nikki Haley, endorsed Bush’s chief rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
That’s bad news for the GOP vis-à-vis Latinos. Bush’s understanding of Mexico and Mexicans (including his wife) is respected from Chiapas to Chihuahua. He’s the only Republican candidate who connects with Latino voters – and Latino immigrants – well enough to attract more than 27 percent of that critical swing bloc.
You’ll say: But Rubio is Latino! Right, Rubio is Cuban-American. And Cuban-Americans represent a whopping 3 percent of the Latino population – a 3 percent whose inordinately privileged immigration status is bitterly resented by most non-Cuban Latinos like Mexican-Americans.
Rubio has shown brief flashes of evidence that he gets the immigrant crisis. But the GOP establishment’s notion that he’s their “Latino” guy is facile at best.
Meanwhile, Latin American economic and security conditions keep driving migration. Before Francis arrived, the big news in Juárez was the firing of some 120 workers by a factory owned by the U.S. printer company Lexmark – because they demanded a pay hike that amounts to about 35 cents a day.
There may be less murder in Juárez. But there’s still not much hope.