The ties that bind: Obama travels to Mexico

Shared issues of border security, the economy, and immigration will likely dominate the conversation between President Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week.

Martin Mejia/AP
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto speaks during the inauguration of the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Lima, Peru, last week. When Nieto meets with President Obama in Mexico this week, shared issues of border security, the economy, and immigration will likely dominate their conversation.

When President Obama meets his counterpart President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week, three issues will likely dominate their conversation: border security, the economy, and immigration – themes that are as inextricably tied as the two nations' physical border.

Mexico’s new government has shifted the national conversation on security away from one of drug war to crime prevention. It has promoted its economic prospects, and promised greater opportunities for Mexicans through reforms of everything from key industries to education.

Yet drug-related violence hasn’t abated, and that’s a concern for both Mexico and its northern neighbor. At meetings last month, representatives of both governments agreed to “fundamentally restructure the way both countries manage their shared border,” according to a White House statement. The new approach aims to boost economic competitiveness and trade, improve public safety, and “welcome lawful visitors.” 

Mexico and the United States have long been important partners. But this week's meeting offers a fresh chance to expand the scope and depth of the conversation on shared issues while each side promotes domestic reform agendas – immigration in the US, and education and business reforms in Mexico – that could affect how the two nations relate into the future.

“I think the main interest is to define the relationship more broadly,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington. “Not walk away from or minimize the security agenda but to build a bigger story line for the relationship with Mexico.”

A competitive region

The US and Mexican economies have been in a process of “silent integration” in the two decades since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to Jorge Schiavon, professor of international relations at the public university CIDE in Mexico City. Now the question is, how can the two nations compete together with the rest of the world?

“What is needed is regional competitiveness in a global marketplace,” says Mr. Schiavon. “North America must become more competitive." 

Nearly 80 percent of Mexican exports are destined for the United States but that statistic belies just how integrated the two economies are.

Forty percent of the goods exported to the US from Mexico contain US-made parts, says to Shannon O’Neil, author of "Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead." To make a product like a car in Mexico, parts may have crossed the border dozens of times before the finished product is finally shipped north. By contrast, just 4 percent of exports to the US from China, Brazil, and the European Union have US-made content.

“In Mexico, it’s really a back and forth process, and it’s beneficial for US workers,” Ms. O’Neil says. “This is something that has really happened since NAFTA. Trade has exploded; it’s changed the decision-making process.” 

Mexicans appreciate this; According to Pew Research, 70 percent of Mexicans believe deep economic ties with the US benefit their country. 

Unknowns in security

Although the two nations’ economic ties are likely to take center stage, analysts on both sides of the border say the unprecedented cooperation on security established over the past six years should continue.

“You don’t want the conversation to be dominated by one topic but you can’t ignore the situation,” says Mr. Farnsworth. 

He says Washington is going to want to know, “Is progress being made? Is the new Mexican government fully versed in the implications of security issues in Mexico? I think there is some uncertainty around what this government will do.”

Despite the shift in how the government talks about drug-related violence, in substance President Peña Nieto’s government appears to be continuing the strategy of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. The military remains deployed in violent regions, while a new nationwide crime prevention program is largely an expansion of the one Mr. Calderón started in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in 2010. In addition, the government has announced plans to create a gendarmerie of former soldiers to patrol the countryside by the end of the year, although details of the new force's mandate and budget have so far been cloudy.

In one big shift, the Mexican government told The Associated Press on Monday that it would have all US law enforcement contact go through a "single window" of the federal Interior Ministry, which manages security – curbing the unrestricted contact of recent years between the countries' security agencies. Sergio Alcocer, Mexico's deputy foreign secretary for North American affairs, said the change would improve coordination, but some observers see the shift as a move away from the levels of direct US involvement that existed under Calderon.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico over the past six years, while another 30,000 have disappeared.

Still, “there are a lot of questions,” says Ernesto López Portillo, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, or INSYDE. “Concretely, the public policy of Peña Nieto’s government in terms of security is still unknown.”  

Rooting for immigration reform

Mexico’s improving economy, along with sluggish growth in the US and heightened insecurity in Mexico have combined to transform historical immigration patterns. Net migration from Mexico to the US fell to zero last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

While that’s taken some of the pressure off the issue, the Mexican government remains a quiet if committed advocate for US immigration reform given that as of 2011, some 6.1 million Mexicans were living without authorization in the US, according to Pew.

But immigration is ultimately a US domestic issue and therefore it’s “taboo” for Mexico to get too involved, Schiavon says. Plus, when Peña Nieto meets with Obama, should immigration reform come up in private, he may be preaching to the choir since Obama has been urging congress to act for months.

Improving perceptions

Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexico ambassador to the US, recently described the US-Mexico relationship as one that “has never been stronger and is actually thriving.”

Now the challenge for both governments is to change how each side of the border views the other – less through the lens of drug violence and more as economic partners.

As Farnsworth says, the two presidents’ upcoming meeting could set the stage “to show [the US] in a new light to Mexico and Mexico in a new light to the US.”  

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