REVIEW: Article

United States-Mexico: New Opportunities

Even ambassadors who scrupulously avoid the pitfalls of clientism are prone to magnify the importance to the United States (US) of the country to which they are accredited. Therefore, it is with self-awareness that I make the following blunt statement: no country in the world has a greater impact on the daily life of Americans than does Mexico. More Americans are affected by what happens in Mexico than by the events and trends of any other nation. What we buy, sell, and make, the wages we pay and receive, the languages we speak, the illicit drugs and criminality that afflict us, and, in some locales, the very air we breathe and water we use is influenced in significant measure by Mexico. And yet the attention paid to that country is sporadic and often partial or negative, focusing on one issue or perceived threat at a time—narcotics, illegal migration, job loss, etc. We need an intelligent national discussion about Mexican issues before we can adequately address the same topics with Mexican authorities.

The profile of Mexico in the United States took a quantum leap with the arrival in December 2000 of Vicente Fox as Mexico’s new president. His election in July of last year came as a bolt out of the blue for many who had not been aware of Mexico’s progressive economic and political transformation over the previous decade. Mexicans themselves were surprised and pleased by Fox’s victory as they had doubted their own ability and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government’s willingness to manage a free electoral process. Fox’s predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, deserves credit for insisting that Mexico’s economic modernization had to be accompanied by increased political democratization and for imposing his view on his own ruling political party.

Fox brings a dynamism and charisma to the presidency. He is committed to deepening the trends of political and economic liberalization fostered by Zedillo. He is unencumbered by the decades of compromise, deal making, and coddling of the PRI’s political machinery, an impressive organization that did much good for Mexico while contradictorily creating a climate of complicity and corruption. Fox’s political mobility for reform is limited by the continuing competition for power among and within Mexico’s traditional parties: he controls neither house of congress; the largest party remains the PRI which is seriously divided; and, he has significant differences with his own party, the National Action Party (PAN). All of this disarray passes for routine in the rest of the democratic world, but is fairly new and distracting for Mexico, which had been run as a tight political ship under the PRI.

In terms of Mexico-US relations, Fox is encouragingly candid and willing to recognize publicly what prior Mexican administrations had preferred to obscure in a haze of rhetorical nationalism: Mexico’s future depends heavily on the US and therefore improvement in the relationship is a top priority for his government. Most serious Mexicans long ago stopped believing the old bromide about poor Mexico: so close to the US, so far from God. But many in the political and intellectual classes could not bring themselves to admit the hollowness of the old view, preferring to present themselves as at least uncomfortable with, and often hostile to, the grasp of the northern giant. Fox knows that he is no less a patriot for arguing that increased ties with the US—on all levels—commercial, cultural, educational, etc.—will benefit both countries.

He has manifested other changes in attitude and action as well. While previous governments underplayed the contributions and problems of Mexican migrants in the US, Fox proudly proclaims those who have participated in the exodus northward (close to ten percent of Mexico’s population) as heroes and argues that the difficulties that so many of them suffer must be at the top of his agenda. While previous governments welcomed foreign investment, large chunks of the Mexican economy—electricity generation, petroleum, banking, airlines—were maintained as protected areas. Fox is limited in how far he can go in opening these sectors to foreign investment, but his discourse is much more frank than prior discussions. In recent years, Mexico has done more to fight the narcotics trade and other cross border criminality, but frequently has resisted fuller cooperation with the US. Fox’s new approach recognizes a shared responsibility and is designed to promote greater levels of anti-criminal collaboration. And, in the international arena, Mexico has traditionally used “non-interventionsim,” a convenient protection against American pressure, as an excuse to absent itself from significant involvement in potentially intrusive, but beneficial, international activities such as human rights scrutiny of other countries, and peacekeeping. On his first day in office, Fox announced that Mexico will seek one of the rotating seats on the United Nations (UN) Security Council in 2002 and that it will join the community of democracies in speaking out against human rights abuses.

These changes in attitude and rhetoric accord with the new Mexican reality—a nation of 100 million people, the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member that ranks as the globe’s twelfth largest manufacturer, a country with free trade compacts with the largest economic clusters in the world (US/Canada and the European Union among others), and our second largest trading partner, soon to be our first. Fox represents a new, more assertive, increasingly first world and proud of it, Mexico.

Fox’s self-confidence and Mexico’s evolving self-image should make interaction between our two countries easier, less afflicted by cant, more open and businesslike. But this will be far from easy. While there are any number of issues that can and frequently do bubble to the surface causing tension, the most contentious topics in the US-Mexican equation deal with migration and narcotics. And, because these are not arid matters of international geo-strategy in far away places but rather complicated issues with high domestic impact and content, they are particularly difficult for us to deal with. We need to discuss these matters among ourselves—in Congress, the press, universities, etc.—in order to be able to have enlightened dialogue with Mexico.

The illegal entrance into the US of both narcotics and undocumented immigrants lends itself to an easy parallel, which has been too often used in Mexico in order to evade responsibility. If the US public did not demand drugs and US employers did not seek low-paid workers, Mexico would not be a supplier. On the US side of the border there has been an equally simplistic effort to reduce these complex problems to a sort of supply-demand equation: control your drugs (or people) and we will not have any drug or migrant issues: it is your supply that causes the problem. Fortunately, in recent years serious leadership in both countries has recognized that these accusatory approaches, which ignore the push-pull of migration and the massive transnational commercializing effort of the drug traffickers, are inaccurate and sterile. Cooperation has increased and shows all signs of likely growing under the Fox Administration.

Mexico has come a long way in recent years in its understanding of the corrosive effect of the narcotics trade on its own weak judicial and police institutions and its own growing problem of consumption. We work closely with Mexican officials, offering training and information sharing as we try to make life more difficult for criminals. Progress is slow; disappointments are bountiful, but we have had some success. As Mexicans look northward, the question of demand still arises. While the finger pointing has diminished, there are still valid questions asked as to whether we are doing enough in our country to educate youth, rehabilitate drug users, and promote an anti-addictive culture. These are legitimate questions, and, while we should not reduce our efforts in terms of law enforcement, are we truly doing all we could do on the education and rehabilitation side of the equation? This issue is one that is gaining increased attention in the US, though unfortunately it frequently becomes involved in what is a useless debate about the highly unlikely possibility of legalization. Much serious public discussion is frittered away on that facet of the issue that could be better addressed to the prevention and treatment issues.

Just as we should be discussing consumption problems among ourselves with greater seriousness, we ought to be looking at the illegal migration issue within a wider binational context of shared responsibility. The Mexicans want to regularize the status of their nationals in the US and to amplify the number that can enter legally. We can and do urge the Mexican government to work with us to make migration as safe and orderly as possible by fighting against the alien smugglers who prey on the migrants. We ask for greater cooperation in blocking illegal entrance by third country nationals into their territory as fully 20 percent of the 1.5 million Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) turnarounds on the border in 2000 were not Mexicans, but citizens of other nations. We urge the Mexican government to put more police on the frontier who could at the very least orient potential aliens away from the most dangerous illegal crossing points. And, most fundamentally, we express our support for Fox’s own interpretation of the migration phenomena, that only when Mexico can develop its economy more fully through foreign and domestic investment, eliminate much of the poverty that grips half of its population, and reduce the income disparity (currently about seven to one) between Mexico and its northern neighbor will the migration flow begin to ebb.

Of course, we do support American investors once they have made the decision to become involved in Mexico; commercial advocacy is an important element of the Embassy’s work. But for many observers this may not be sufficient. Many argue that the US and Canada should adopt an attitude more akin to that of the European Union toward its poor southern neighbors, promoting the transfer of resources, both private and governmental southward, much as the wealthy countries of northern Europe have done with their less developed partners. As of 2001, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance program to Mexico is half that of our programs in Zambia or Malawi, and we make no general distinction between those countries and Mexico in our public support for private US investment. Prior Mexican governments have generally rejected public acknowledgement of Mexico as an aid recipient, but the Fox Administration seems less hung-up along those lines and would welcome a more helpful approach from the north.

The European model is one that Mexicans look toward in terms of economic development, but as yet there has been no echo from the US side. To promote any program of resource transfers would involve the US government (USG) not only in the traditional domestic debate regarding foreign assistance, but in a much more focused criticism about passing taxpayers funds to a relatively wealthy (in developing country terms) nation which has already benefited from the outflow of many American jobs. It would be a difficult debate indeed, but we should be studying the possibilities seriously. 

While an informed discussion about how the US might better assist in Mexico’s development would be useful, a public dialogue on our immigration policies is imperative. Regrettably, the United States historically debates migration, often with negative and nativistic results, during periods of economic downturn, e.g. Proposition 187 in California during a tough period in the 1990s. It is unfortunate that we did not use our recent fat years as an appropriate moment for an intelligent debate on the issue. What is clear is that our migration policies are not having the desired effect. The results of the 2000 census are instructive. The Hispanic population has increased by more than 100 percent in 19 states and has grown enormously almost everywhere else since 1990. Many of these numbers represent US citizens and legal permanent resident aliens, but researchers now believe that the number of illegal immigrants living in the US may be closer to nine to even 11 million than the six million figure which the USG has used in recent years. And, if we assume that as many as two-thirds of that number are Mexicans, there may be somewhere between six and eight million undocumented Mexicans living in the US, a number about equal to that of Mexican-born individuals legally residing here. The figures are not yet substantiated and are quite controversial but certainly accord with the abundant anecdotal evidence available.

This massive upsurge in the undocumented Mexican population has come at a time when the USG has dedicated more funds for border security than ever before, hiring new agents, building new fences. To be charitable, this effort has not worked as intended. Indeed it may have had a perverse effect. Getting into the US has become measurably more difficult, so the old patterns of migrants who would come for a period of time, go back home for Christmas or harvest, and then return to the US for another period of work has been interrupted. Once through the gauntlet, few want to leave and try again.

The Mexican public is outraged by a policy which, by making crossing the border more difficult, has pushed undocumented migrants into dangerous areas. In 2000, about 400 Mexicans lost their lives in the attempt. On average, a person a day dies from exposure, drowning, or dehydration. What makes this toll particularly galling is that after making the entrance so difficult, once in the US, the average migrant has relatively little difficulty in finding work, his labor is extolled by economic experts as productively anti-inflationary, and has very little chance of getting picked up by the INS. The old style raids of workplaces have largely vanished and the supposed penalties for employers of illegal aliens are rarely enforced.

There is no hotter hot button issue in the bilateral relationship for Mexicans than our treatment of their migrants, not only in the perilous crossing of the border, but once in the United States. Throughout history, immigrants’ lives have rarely been easy, but, for most illegal aliens now in the US, life must be lived in the shadows. They are often mistreated by unscrupulous employers and are afraid to deal with any US authorities who might help them. They have income and social security taxes deducted from their usually meager wages to be paid into accounts under the false names and numbers they have obtained with no likelihood of benefit in the future.

There are a growing number of voices in the US urging new approaches—perhaps a vastly expanded guest worker program or an amnesty. There are no easy answers, but any approach should take into consideration the weakness of the current policy and the human costs of those who suffer, hide, or die in order to live and work in the US. Here again, as in the question of narcotics or resource transfers from rich north to poor south, the domestic political obstacles to informed debate and reasoned approaches are enormous. For many political and opinion leaders, ignoring the topics is the best option. But such an approach is counterproductive. We have to prepare for the future. Our relationship with Mexico is profoundly different today that it was twenty years ago. Can anyone seriously think that it will not change even more profoundly in the next two decades? It is clearly in the interest of the United States that Mexico continue to develop as an economic force and a stable democracy able to give its population the benefits of life in the 21st century. With an assertive Fox Administration urging us to begin a dialogue, we must also begin serious conversations among ourselves on these important topics.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Mexico