Mexican ambassador: Relationship with Trump is improving

Mexican ambassador: Relationship with Trump is improving
© Greg Nash

Mexican Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez says relations between his country and the Trump administration have improved substantially in the last few months.

“My own view is that we’re in a better shape now than when we started early this year,”
Gutiérrez said in an interview with The Hill.

The list of differences between Trump and Mexico begins with the president’s promise of a wall on the border, which he says America’s neighbor will pay for.

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It also encompasses the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has threatened to cancel.

“It’s no secret that we have had our share of difference with the Trump administration. Those differences are public, they’re known. What both sides have strived for is to find common ground within those differences,” Gutierrez said.

“One of the positive things about what has been built over the past six to eight months is the fact that both sides believe the other guy is honestly trying to reach a deal on different aspects of the relationship.

The ambassador said there are “very clear red lines for both sides.”

“One for us is clearly the issue of the wall, or paying for the wall. But once those red lines are clear, we understand better each other’s priorities, we do try to find common ground.”

Another core Trump issue is immigration enforcement, a sensitivity for Mexico because roughly 5.6 million of its citizens are undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“It’s very clear for us being the Mexican government that it’s really up to the United States, its institutions and its people to determine what type of immigration system is best for the United States,” said Gutiérrez.

At the same time, he said, it's Mexico's duty to protect the interests of its citizens in the United States.

Trump nixed a key immigration program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), on Tuesday, sparking debate on how to deal with its nearly 800,000 recipients, 68 percent of whom are Mexican citizens.

Under DACA, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children were given work permits and deferral from deportation for two-year periods.

Mexico chose not to stay in the sidelines despite DACA being a domestic issue, Gutiérrez said. The country has vowed to lobby Congress for passage of a bill enshrining into law the program's benefits, while providing legal assistance to DACA recipients who wish to remain in the United States.

“We will make use of all the appropriate tools that we have available,” he said.

Mexico has not handled a specific firm to handle DACA.

“At this stage, at least, we’re engaging directly with legislators to try to express our point of view, which is pretty much fair game in the way governments interact with the U.S. Congress here in different realms,” he said.

“[DACA] represents an important inflection point that calls for an increase in more active engagement with Congress, but it’s not as if we’re changing our whole approach,” Gutiérrez added.

The defense of so-called “Dreamers” ‘— DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — has put Mexico in an uncomfortable position. Critics argue that if Mexico truly valued Dreamers, it would be fighting to take them back.

 “It’s not that we don’t want them back,” said Gutiérrez. “It’s that they have made a life here since they were children. I think there’s a difference.

“[Dreamers are] basically like any other children in the United States. By this time it’s very likely that they have jobs, that they are, some of them, married, they may even have a kid or two that was born here in the U.S., they might even have a small home, a mortgage, a dog and a car. Would it be easy for them to return?”

Gutiérrez said Mexico's lobbying effort on DACA and other issues is “nothing new,” but the country's Washington strategy has traditionally privileged engagement with the executive branch.

Under Trump, that's been made more difficult by bilateral tension and Trump's own unorthodox way of doing politics.

Gutiérrez said Trump's tweets — Mexico has been a favorite target — serve a different political purpose than official lines of communication, but the country has no choice but to take them seriously.

“Obviously, I think it would be unwise not to treat any public expression of the president of the United States seriously. He is the president of the United States,” he said.

Gutiérrez added that public perception of the bilateral relationship “is somewhat distinct from what is actually going on,” but admitted the two governments share the blame for that.

“Something that both sides have mishandled is we have not probably done a very good job in informing our constituencies. Why is it important, the relationship? Why is it better to work together? Why are we doing X or Y thing?” he said.

“Being self-critical, there’s a need to address that. People would be inclined to have a better opinion of Mexico in general if they were better informed by ourselves about what we do with the United States.”

Still, Gutierrez admitted the relationship faces pressing challenges, including the future of NAFTA.

NAFTA negotiators finished the second round of talks in Mexico City Tuesday, and will reconvene in Ottawa on Sept. 23.

“Relatively soon we’ll find ourselves dealing with the more complicated issues, the [trade] deficit, Chapter 19, rules of origin. There’s where we’ll see a little bit more stress,” said Gutiérrez.

Gutierrez recognized that negotiations on the more difficult issues had the potential to terminate the 25-year-old trade deal.

“Are we ready to live without NAFTA? Yes we are. Do we think that’s the best option? Not necessarily.”

Still, Gutiérrez said the bilateral relationship, despite its difficulties, is a top priority for the Mexican government.

“We have had our own share of difficult pills to swallow. We believe that unless something extraordinary happens, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is really for the long run,” said Gutiérrez. “That’s why we will try to put less attention to the daily narrative that goes on about the U.S.-Mexico relationship and try to focus more on achieving the goals that we have set forth, but that doesn’t mean that there are not limits.”