ANALYSIS
Opinion
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A better way to understand the US-Mexico relationship

Mexico and the United States are close partners with deeply integrated economies. They cannot solve their problems through confrontation

President Joe Biden meets with Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador, last November at the White House.
President Joe Biden meets with Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador, last November at the White House.Susan Walsh (AP)

American political rhetoric depicting Mexico as an adversary is most commonly associated with Trump’s GOP. In reality, it has been a bipartisan political sport long preceding Trump that still guides how leaders in both parties often frame the US-Mexico relationship. While Trump’s outright villainization of Mexico is no longer a daily news topic, a recent article in The New York Times alarmingly suggested that many Biden administration insiders believe that a more adversarial relationship with Mexico would better advance US interests. The article quotes a number of anonymous Biden officials who argue the American ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, should establish a less collaborative and more distant relationship with Mexican authorities in order to deliver unspecified “policy wins” to the Biden administration.

This zero-sum framework for understanding the US-Mexico relationship is wrong and dangerous. It cartoonishly depicts Mexico and the United States as enemies battling in a game where one country’s policy win is the other’s defeat.

In reality, Mexico and the United States are close partners with deeply integrated economies. They cannot solve their problems through confrontation. The only viable tool to deliver wins to Biden is collaboration because the interests of both countries are intertwined.

That’s why, despite incendiary beltway talk, every recent American attempt to disrupt the US-Mexico relationship has failed.

For example, Trump’s supposed goal to reduce trade between with Mexico and implement strict tariffs on Mexican goods —while arguably a strategic campaign strategy— completely disintegrated when it came down to real negotiations. Obligated to deliver something on his campaign rhetoric, Trump insisted on a NAFTA renegotiation, which turned out to be a mere rebranding of the trade agreement. The newly minted USMCA retained nearly all of NAFTA’s open market commitments. And in fact, since USMCA took effect in 2020, trade between the two countries has not changed. Mexico is today, as it was with NAFTA, the second top-trade partner of the US.

In case after case, American combative gestures turn out to be too impractical to implement at the moment of truth. Take the infamous border wall. Trump’s preposterous proposal was a toxic escalation of an already hostile American immigration policy that has for decades needlessly channeled immigrants that the American economy depends on towards black-market entry along lethal desert passages. The “big and beautiful” wall was central to Trump’s political rise, and only a small piece of it was ever built because a full budget was never approved.

Turns out that US border cities are much less concerned with impeding transit than with making it more efficient. That is why Tijuana-San Diego now has a binational airport and 350 million people are allowed to cross the US-Mexico border each year, almost triple the entire population of Mexico.

Americans should view the US-Mexico relationship less as in need of new “policy wins” and more so as a relationship that is already extremely advantageous to US interests. Mexico has become the de facto enforcer of US immigration policy, hosting 70.000 migrants seeking US asylum in its territory and using its own national guard to stop Central American migrants from entering Mexico. In 2021, Mexico arrested a record number of undocumented migrants on their way to US territory.

Mexico’s generosity with the US immigration agenda is staggering and is done at the expense of severe domestic criticism to President López Obrador. The Mexican federal government has committed a donation of $100 million to Central America to stop undocumented immigration, a significant amount given Mexico’s scrawny federal budget.

Under López Obrador, Mexico has supported American organized labor by committing resources and political capital to implement a historic labor reform and increasing the minimum wage by more than 50% in four years. In fact, one of the first actions of the López Obrador government upon coming to power was to double the salary of workers in border municipalities.

Of course, many problems between the two nations remain unresolved. But their solutions require more cooperation, not less. For example, reducing violence in Mexico and drug trafficking to the United States depends upon the joint implementation of the Bicentennial Framework. Managing the growing migratory flow of Mexicans to the United States will necessitate a long-overdue temporary work visa program. And controlling inflation requires improving the efficiency of the production chains of both countries.

It is also important to understand that pundits and foreign correspondents covering Mexico tend to cite as their main source representatives of local think tanks that are funded and created by zealot supporters of opposition parties. For these think tanks and their oligarch financiers, portraying a bilateral relationship that confronts López Obrador is a political strategy to win future elections.

The very fact that the ambassador, Ken Salazar, is willing to question the bias of these organizations, is actually refreshing and an uncommon position for a US official to take, and speaks to his clear understanding of Mexico’s political landscape.

The only beneficiaries of Ken Salazar confronting López Obrador are the opposition political parties in both countries—the Republicans who want Biden to look weak, and the PAN/PRI who want Obrador to be seen as an enemy of the United States.

López Obrador is a deeply flawed leader. He has failed to address Mexico’s longstanding crisis. But those who promote a confrontational approach to US-Mexico relations do not have the interests of either country at heart.

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