Why the Status Quo with Mexico Isn't Working

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. Flickr/Creative Commons/A. Davey

The United States can't afford to treat Mexico with benign neglect.

The trick is to legalize and regulate the people flow. This must be done without disrupting the 48 official land ports of entry between the two countries. We need better guest-worker programs that would complement NAFTA and offer a realistic path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Legalizing Mexican workers to get them out of the informal economy and on the tax rolls, would help pay for improved security. One way to provide such a path to citizenship might be to expand the opportunities for Mexicans to serve in the U.S. military.

Our border defenses don’t need so much to be high as they need to be deep. Immigration enforcement must extend through Mexican territory to Central America. This only works if we bolster Mexico’s internal cooperation. The Mexican immigration service needs strong backing, including a reinforced campaign to discourage immigration coming up through Central America. Illegal immigration is a problem for Mexicans too, as it feeds the crime gangs and contributes to illegal aliens in Mexico.

Bolstering Law and Order

Helping Mexico to bring down drug trafficking mafias and reduce violent crime would pay dividends for the United States and fit with the President-elect’s aims. Mexican organized crime gangs are every bit as deadly and powerful as ISIS, and have a greater day-to-day impact on the United States. In the last few years, violent crime in Mexico is up, and American businesses are wary of Mexico’s security environment. Traffickers operate in all American cities and heroin use in the United States, much of it supplied from Mexico, is at the highest rate in 20 years, according to the UN Drugs and Crime Office.

Trump should pledge to go beyond the Merida Initiative, the $2.5 billion plan that began in 2008 to combat Mexican organized crime. The program supported police and, through other initiatives, managed to bring violent offenders, like the notorious drug trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, to justice. Merida’s funding has been woefully inadequate given the magnitude of the problem. Compare Merida spending for our neighbor Mexico to our spending in remote Afghanistan, which, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, totaled $642 billion between 2001 and 2013. Alongside NAFTA negotiations, we should propose multiplying our aid to the Mexican police and judiciary to help raise them to U.S. standards.

Three great initiatives — modernizing NAFTA, deepening our southern border defenses, and doubling down on Mexico’s internal security—will help transform the relationship into a positive-sum for both parties. But if Mexico continues to be treated as a problem, relations could turn on the United States in a nasty way.

Countering the Looming Threat of the Mexican Left

Former U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, in his insightful book on U.S.-Mexico relations, notes this offhand greeting from a Mexican politician: “How are you planning to violate our sovereignty today, Mr. Ambassador?” In negotiating with Mexico, we must bear in mind that many Mexican elites, especially those on the left, inherently fear and distrust the United States.

All negotiations must aim to strengthen our ideological allies in Mexico and prevent the Mexican left from getting traction in 2018. If we treat Mexico like a zero-sum relationship, we will confirm the left’s traditional, xenophobic narrative. The leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known commonly as “AMLO,” has failed to win election before, but after years of neoliberal reforms, perhaps the system is due for a leftist resurgence.

AMLO’s opponents compare him to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. An exaggeration perhaps, but many Venezuelans equally underestimated Chavez’s radical agenda and thought democratic institutions would restrain him. Ironically, AMLO, the perpetual outsider, might himself be emboldened by Trump’s improbable win.

If AMLO were to win the presidency in 2018, and he’d only need an electoral plurality to do it, he would work to reverse many of his predecessors’ liberal gains and move to weaken U.S. influence over trade and security. AMLO’s worldview sees the U.S.-Mexico relationship in zero-sum terms. His election might put Mexico back on our plate as a foreign policy problem.

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