President Obama’s sixth trip to Latin America begins on Thursday. Before meeting with leaders of Central American countries in Costa Rica, Obama will visit with the youthful and popular Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. The invitation comes in the midst of a US domestic debate about comprehensive immigration reform and just a week after the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill was introduced. But Peña Nieto does not have Obama’s agenda on his mind: Immigration is America’s problem to fix. And that should suit both countries just fine.
The last time the United States pushed for immigration reform, Mexico was more than just a bystander. Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox were “frenemies” (Fox once famously called Bush “the cockiest” guy he had ever met) who felt they had a common interest in securing borders, limiting violence, and promoting economic trade. In early 2001, when Bush took office, Mexico’s foreign-policy agenda was part of Bush’s domestic-policy agenda: Stabilize the border and rationalize the immigration status of the millions of Mexicans illegally working in the United States. Then, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed America’s priorities.
But even as the United States shifted its focus to the Middle East, traffic on both sides of the US-Mexican border continued to increase. Mexico is one of the United States’s largest trading partners and the second-largest market for US exports. Goods are not just sold to each other, but made together: Nearly 40 percent of the products exported to the United States from Mexico are constructed with parts from the United States.
Fox wanted to increase those ties. But he also knew that of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States, about 7 million are from Mexico. They had friends and family in Mexico; some of them sent money back. For the sake of their interests, Fox invested his own political capital in Bush’s promise of immigration reform.
For better or worse, that investment made many Americans feel that immigration reform was a favor to our southern neighbor. Fox’s embrace of Bush’s plans obscured the key beneficiary of immigration reform: the United States.
After Bush left office, having failed to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, Mexico shifted to a more low-key approach. Under Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s involvement with US immigration problems was limited to actions like filing one of the many briefs in the US Supreme Court seeking to block Arizona’s infamous crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Peña Nieto has continued that approach. He is less concerned with the United States’s domestic politics and much more with his own, which include an entirely different approach to battling the drug cartels that operate along the border. He essentially wants a truce with the cartels. That is how he became president. Though his plan is unclear, it includes a fundamental shift in US and Mexican efforts on the “war on drugs.”
In the meantime, Peña Nieto has been mostly quiet about immigration reform. When information about the new bill was first released, the Mexican government simply welcomed, in a generic statement, “the principles that have been set out.” It has said little since.
As a strategy, ignoring America’s immigration reform efforts is likely to work for Mexico. And it may be helpful to the United States, as well. While there will be many bumps in the way of comprehensive immigration reform — from the resistance of House Republicans with law-and-order constituencies, to concerns about whether gay spouses will receive immigration benefits — one bump is not going to be Mexico.
The more the United States can separate its domestic policy needs from those of a nation that has a fair share of its own problems, the more likely that Americans will recognize the historic nature of comprehensive reform.
Immigration reform is about meeting the economic needs of the United States in the 21st century, from rural labor to Silicon Valley start-ups. It is about creating a border enforcement policy that is tough but also not cruel. It is about the United States. It is not about Mexico.
And Mexico is glad to hear that.