Mexican National Guard forces watch over the Suchiate River, a popular location for migrants to cross from Guatemala to Mexico.

Neighborly test in US-Latin America ties

With predictions of waves of migrants cause by a COVID-19 recession, the U.S. may be showing more concern in lifting up its neighbors.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Latin America had the world’s slowest economic growth. Now it is also the epicenter for new COVID-19 cases. The combination is driving the region into recession. Mexico’s economy, for example, is expected to dip by about 20% this year. No wonder most of the migrants lately crossing the southwest U.S. border have been single Mexican men seeking work.

Washington’s treatment of border crossers is often seen as a test of how it views Latin America. Under President Donald Trump, the treatment has been strict, even harsh at times, in denying access. After a tsunami of migrants last year – mainly Central American families – Mr. Trump’s new policy of pushing migrants back has cut illegal crossings by nearly half. This is the heart of his reelection pitch.

Yet many economists predict ever larger waves as Latin America’s recession deepens. The new border policies, including more fencing, may not be enough. The time could be ripe for the U.S. and Latin America to again be more neighborly.

One inkling that this idea has taken hold is the administration’s decision in late June to provide $252 million in additional aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The money is aimed at addressing the root causes of migration – violence, corruption, and low economic opportunity. It will go toward job creation, economic reforms, and improved security. The U.S. also supports $5.2 billion in emergency aid to Latin America from the International Monetary Fund.

Another focus that addresses root causes is the July 1 launch of the new North American trade accord – the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Mexico is so eager to celebrate this “new NAFTA” that its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is taking his first official trip abroad by visiting the White House July 8 and 9.

With remittances dropping from Mexicans working in the U.S., Mr. López Obrador is counting on the new treaty to boost investments from the U.S. and revive Mexico’s economy. And in a shift in bilateral ties, he says Mr. Trump’s rhetoric toward Mexico has become more respectful.

The borderless impact of the pandemic is forcing a rethink of the physical and mental borders between the U.S. and Latin America. If a new wave of migration emerges, the two will need more cooperation. Being secure requires being neighborly.

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