TransBorder Project Policy Report
It’s unfortunate that the two presidents chose to hold their May 2-3 summit in Mexico City. Both nations and Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto would have been better served by a meeting at the border—where the grim reality of neighborly relations would not be masked by the pomp and circumstance of the grand presidential residence of Los Pinos.
A meeting at the customs building in Ciudad Juárez—the site of the first Mexico-U.S. presidential meeting in 1909 between Porfirio Díaz and William Taft—would have likely resulted in a more memorable and productive summit of the current heads of state, Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama. As it is, this meeting will likely be soon forgotten—lost in protocol, predictable rhetoric about interdependence, and the photogenic smiles of the two presidents.
A century ago the Rio Grande/Río Bravo clearly marked the divide between El Paso and Juárez, the border twins that were jointly known as El Paso del Norte—the pass to the north. Today, however, it’s unlikely that the presidential delegations and the accompanying media would now passes for a river—really just an alarmingly greenish trickle of pesticides, fertilizer runoff, and human waste.
Instead of news photos from the bilateral meeting depicting two smiling presidents, we would be witnessing images of the stark divide between the two neighbors: the formidable border security infrastructure, the smog rising from the long lines of vehicles waiting to cross, the beggars and street vendors taking advantage of the stalled south-north traffic, the ravages of the drug wars, the miles of low-slung factories called maquiladoras, the sprawling colonias of Mexico’s expanding, but still largely poor, middle class (those families earning at least $7,500 annually), and still-poorer squatter settlements that spread out into the Chihuahuan Desert.
The lead items of the Los Pinos meeting are ones that have long dominated U.S.-Mexico presidential meetings: immigration, border control, economic integration, and drug-related security. The presidents will achieve some camaraderie chatting about the domestic political obstacles that complicate their plans for national and international progress. In the pleasant, climate-controlled setting of Los Pinos, it’s unlikely that Peña Nieto and Obama will address in any depth, if at all, what will soon become the top agenda item of most binational and multilateral meetings: the scourge of climate change.
If Obama and Peña Nieto were to talk about common concerns while on the border instead of in sitting rooms of the White House and Los Pinos, they would see a common future in the river that divides the two nations. Climate change-aggravated drought has reduced the Río Bravo to a viscous, milky green trickle. Groundwater reserves in the greater borderlands are being quickly depleted, and farmers, ranchers, and city planners on both sides of the border are battling over rapidly diminishing supplies in the first skirmishes of the water wars that will surely soon overshadow the drug wars as the main threat to regional stability.
A common commitment by Obama and Peña Nieto for each government to do its part to mitigate and mutually adjust to climate change—which doesn’t respect border lines or border security fortifications—would be a sign that binational relations can move beyond being merely economic partners and fighting on the same side of the drug war. The sad plight of the once glorious Río Bravo should not further divide the two nations, but bring the communities to the north and those to the south together as neighbors and part of the larger North American community with shared interests and responsibilities.
Obama comes to Mexico buoyed by an increased personal popularity among U.S. Latinos and Mexicans, largely because of his deepened commitment to reform U.S. immigration policy, but also due to his more assertive stance on behalf of the poor and middle class. The improved (although faltering) prospects for immigration reform will not be well served if Obama continues to use the support for immigration reform as a political crutch.
At the Mexico City meeting, and during all policy discussions about immigration, President Obama should sketch out a new vision of regional immigration that is just, sustainable, and mutually beneficial, delink his support for immigration reform from the wasteful U.S. border security buildup, and administratively suspend the immigrant detention and deportation practices of the Department of Homeland Security until immigration reform is passed and instituted.
Immigration flows from Mexico have nearly zeroed out as the Mexican economy continues to expand at the relatively high rate of more than 3.5% annually since 2009. A reliable and easily used system of employee verification should be the guarantor of a sustainable immigration policy, rather than the proposed billion-dollar yearly increases in border security operations and infrastructure.
The near-fortification of the border during the Bush and Obama administrations has greatly stymied regional trade and the once-vibrant crossborder culture. In highly urbanized areas such as the El Paso-Juárez metroplex, some level of border fencing makes for good neighborly relations, but the 3,169-kilometer border the “secure border fence” is not only a multibillion waste of scarce U.S. revenues, it’s also a shameful monument to U.S. xenophobia and political opportunism.
President Obama should shed the “border security” framing of U.S.-Mexico border policy adopted by the Bush administration and tell President Peña Nieto and the U.S. public that Mexico and Mexicans present no security risk to the borderlands or the U.S. homeland. Terrorism is a palpable threat to U.S. public safety and national security, but this threat is best met by better U.S. intelligence about potential foreign and domestic terrorists and by a common regional security perimeter—not by continuing or increasing military-like measures of border control including drones and militarized border patrols.
Both presidents will likely commit their governments to facilitating cross-border commerce and improving the infrastructure necessary for vibrant, profitable trade and investment. That’s important, but Obama and Peña Nieto will be remiss if they do not first situate their discussion about economic integration within the context of the entire region.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 fell far short of delivering the broadly shared economic development and employment gains promised by its promoters. It was little more than a trade and investment agreement, whose labor and environmental side accords and associated institutions had little enforcement power and limited reach. Even before NAFTA, the economies of Canada, United States, and Mexico were increasing their structural integration not just in trade but also in such now highly integrated sectors as energy resources, electricity, agriculture, and manufacturing (including highly integrated automotive and aviation production). Since 1994 regional trade has tripled and foreign investment increased six times. Mexico is the second largest importer of U.S. goods, following Canada; moreover, the United States is by far the leading market for Mexican exports.
Both Mexico and the United States are currently engaged in another economic liberalization initiative called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving more than a dozen other nations, mostly Asian but also including Chile and Canada. Many of the concerns and criticisms about the corporate-driven character of NAFTA are also highly relevant to the TPP negotiations. However, the main problem of the new, Asia-oriented focus of U.S. and Mexican trade/investment initiatives is the failure to appreciate, leverage, and improve the highly integrated North American economy. The Obama and Peña Nieto trade teams should recognize the mutual benefits of including Canada in talks about smart borders, trade infrastructure, educational visas, security perimeters, immigration, and further economic liberalization—as should the Canadian government.
Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto should embrace the concept—and the reality—of a North American community (a concept heralded by Robert Pastor and other scholars and visionary policy analysts) shaped by demographic trends and economic integration. Whether structured or not by new regulations and institutions, the emergence of a North American community is evident in existence of some 30 million Mexican Americans in the United States.
The NAFTA institutions such as the North American Development Bank and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation as well as such important bilateral initiatives as Border 2020 (which emerged from the 1983 La Paz environmental agreement) should not be left to wither away, but seized upon as the building blocks of a more sustainable regional community that extends beyond economic liberalization. Such institutions are among the first steps of recognizing and shaping the south-north community. Focusing on Asia is looking away from our own region’s complementarity and common future.
Both governments will surely point to fundamental importance of the two nations as trading partners. Yet the trade and investment numbers fall far short in defining the identity, advantages, and challenges of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. More than economic partners, the United States and Mexico are next-door neighbors and all that this proximity implies for the future welfare of both nations. Governance measures on such issues as energy, environmental standards, immigration flows, weapons, illegal drugs, and labor standards need to follow and shape economic integration. If there is to be a sustainable North American community, the framework of economic integration must necessarily address the stark regional imbalances in Mexico’s economic growth and development—with Mexico’s southern states left further and further behind. Similarly, cheaper consumer goods made possible by liberalized trade and investment do not compensate for stagnation of Mexican wages—averaging just over $2 an hour.
Not to be missed is the growing militancy of teachers, students, and agricultural workers in southern Mexico, which was the defining theme of the May 1 marches in Mexico City and elsewhere. Casting a long shadow over the summit will be the intensifying teacher-led protests over the federal reforms of labor and education policy. Centered in Mexico’s poorest southern states, especially Guerrero, the anti-government opposition is protesting the labor, energy, and education reforms of the Peña Nieto government and the Pact for Mexico, which has brought together Mexico’s leading political parties over a package of long-overdue reforms.
Drugs and Guns
Drug trafficking and related violence have largely shaped the binational relationship over the past six years. During his first term, President Obama correctly identified the “shared responsibility” of the United States for the horrific drug-related violence in Mexico. But the Obama administration abysmally failed in shouldering its responsibility. By continuing the military-oriented aid of the Bush administration’s Mérida Initiative, the Obama administration contributed to the increase of drug-related violence and human rights violations in Mexico. By encouraging and largely directing the Calderón government’s military-directed drug war, the Obama administration—along with the Calderón government and Mexico’s security forces—turned large parts of Mexico into killing grounds where assault weapons, not the rule of law, are the only instruments of governance and control.
Despite the Obama administration’s assessment that Mexican drug trafficking organizations constitute a security threat not only to Mexico but also to the United States and to the nations of Central America, President Obama has failed to take sufficient measures to stop the flow of military-grade weaponry to organized criminal organizations and bandits in the region.
The failure to stand up for gun control until the Newtown massacre is emblematic of President Obama’s lead-from-behind posture in many controversial domestic issues, including immigration. In truly addressing the shared responsibility of the United States for violence in Mexico—which has led to the killing or disappearance of nearly 100,000 Mexicans (overwhelmingly civilians) since 2006—President Obama needs to take the lead in finally ending the drug prohibition era and the related U.S.-supported drug wars.
Similarly, President Peña Nieto must, as part of his declared commitment to “crime prevention” and ending the military-led drug war, call for drug legalization in the United States, joining other Latin American leaders as well as Javier Sicilia and the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity. Although not yet calling for the end to the drug-prohibition induced drug wars, Peña Nieto has rightly ended the wholesale drug-interdiction campaigns and drug-kingpin targeting initiated by Calderón and the U.S. government and instead committed his administration to a violence-reduction and law-enforcement strategy.
While the shape of the strategy remains unclear, dramatically reducing the pervasive and proactive military presence throughout much of Mexico has been an appropriate first step. The Mexican president has narrowed the window of U.S. involvement in intelligence, counternarcotics operations, and Mexican military affairs—a clear rebuff to the U.S. government. The Obama administration may be justifiably concerned about the ability of the new government to diminish the power and reach of criminal organizations built largely on drug-trafficking, yet President Obama should, in a gesture of solidarity and shared responsibility, acknowledge the systemic flaws in U.S. counternarcotics and anti-organized crime strategies.
Pervasive patterns of human rights violations, impunity, and police and judicial corruption/reform should be top among U.S. concerns at the presidential meeting. At the same time, however, President Obama should acknowledge that the United States’ four-decade strategy of attempting to reduce the flow of illicit drugs has not only failed, but also led to a raft of adverse consequences.
Tom Barry, who directs the TransBorder Project at CIP, is the author of numerous books on U.S.-Latin America relations, including three books on Mexico. His most recent CIP publication is Drones Over the Homeland.