Despite tensions, Mexico engages with Trump administration

Despite tensions, Mexico engages with Trump administration
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The Mexican government and political parties are dispatching their top officials to Washington to get a foot in the door with the Trump administration, even as tensions rise between the two nations.

Just over the past week, three members of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's cabinet visited Washington, as did Margarita Zavala, a former first lady with presidential aspirations.

And next week, the early frontrunner for next year's presidential election, left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will travel to D.C.

While the future of the Mexico-U.S. relationship is uncertain given President Trump’s tough rhetoric and campaign promises, bilateral ties are a top issue in Mexican politics.

"If we didn't consider this relationship important, this room wouldn't be full," Zavala told a packed house at the Atlantic Council Tuesday.

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Newly installed Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray took a last-minute trip to Washington this week to air grievances over the Trump administration's immigration policies. He met with some of Trump’s top officials at the White House – National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn.

"It's important to underline that we've always had great openness from the American government toward Mexico's positions. We have differences that are clear, that are public, that are notorious," Videgaray said in a press conference after the meeting.

Videgaray voiced his opposition to the administration’s plan to deport some Central American undocumented immigrants to Mexico and a proposal to separate parents and children caught crossing the border illegally.

Secretary of the Economy Ildefonso Guajardo also held a long meeting with Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross this week. The pair struck a collegial tone at a Friday press conference.

"These discussions are the beginning of our work together on day-to-day issues that arise from our close relationship," Ross said.

And Mexican Secretary of Finance José Antonio Meade met his U.S. counterpart, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, on Tuesday. 

But despite the meetings, Zavala said she hasn’t seen such tension between the two nations since before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. 

"Since [the 1980s] I hadn't felt what you can now feel in Mexico," she said. 

Zavala said the trade agreement, implemented in 1994, and an increase in cross-border travel aside from migration, have strengthened the U.S.-Mexico relationship over the past two decades.

"The United States is becoming part of Mexico and Mexico is becoming part of the United States," she said.

But now, she said she’s worried Trump’s “discourse of hate” could cause lasting damage to that integration.

Trump’s relationship with President Peña has been rocky since before the election: Peña and other top officials have rejected Trump’s insistence that Mexico would pay for a wall along the border. And the Mexican president nixed his own planned visit to Washington after Trump signed an executive action ordering the wall-building process to begin.

Still, Mexican authorities are cashing in on the open-door policy offered by Trump's White House. Unlike other key U.S. allies like Colombia and Israel, Mexico has to an extent avoided engaging Congress, instead going straight to the White House. 

Mexico's Washington strategy has traditionally hinged on relations with the executive branch. Mexico's embassy, built in 1986, reflects this mentality — it's the nearest embassy to the White House, just a few blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue from the presidential residence.

And despite the intensity of visits at the executive level, many in Congress say that when it comes to Mexico, it's been business as usual. 

One Republican House aide said there hasn’t been a noticeable change in the number of visits from Mexican officials after the election – “probably equal – a couple of visits to the House pre-election, a couple of visits since,” the aide said.
 
Another said Mexican Capitol Hill operations "went downhill" in 2013, when Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan was replaced, and never recovered. 
 
Some Democrats, especially under President Trump, underlined the importance of ties to Mexico. 
 
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said, "We have, especially among the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), an open and strong relationship with Mexican elected officials."
 
Gallego said Capitol Hill Democrats have strategic advantages when it comes to fostering good relations with Mexico.
 
“We have a lot of the border congressmen are Democrats, have experience working with Mexico," Gallego said.
 
He added that another factor making relations with Mexico easier is that Democrats "don't want to blow up [the North American Free Trade Agreement]."
 
But other CHC members said they've yet to feel a stronger Mexican presence.
 
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said "there hasn't been substantial contact with me, at least."
 
Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezWe are running out of time to protect Dreamers Gutiérrez makes moves toward presidential run: report Gutiérrez leaving Congress, rules out bid for mayor, governor MORE (D-Ill.), a strong proponent of immigration reform, touted the Mexican government's push to protect immigrants through its consular network, but said he hadn't been approached either.

Mexico has 50 consulates in the United States, the largest such network by any country in another. The Mexican government recently diverted 1 billion pesos — about $50 million — to the consular system to protect immigrants in the United States.

"I think they're a key resource. They have lawyers, they have documentation. I'm happy. I thought they were all going to roll over like Peña Nieto," said Gutierrez.