International Affairs

Trump is misreading Mexico as Pena Nieto cancels visit

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Before Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled the White House meeting scheduled for next week, President Trump dared Peña Nieto to not attend the meeting if Mexico would not pay the $12-15 billion completion of the border wall.

Add to that Thursday’s news that the president will ask Congress for a 20 percent import tax on Mexican goods, a tax that Press Secretary Sean Spicer says could easily be used for the construction of the wall.

{mosads}Trump clearly fails to recognize that Mexico has leverage in controlling the spigot of non-Mexican Central and South American migrants travelling north. Moreover, apart from being a longstanding good neighbor in most respects, Mexico agrees with Trump on several issues including: completing the wall, renegotiating NAFTA, getting rid of the drug lords and crime at the border, and cooperating on security against terrorism at the border. Confronting Mexico with insults does not recognize that the U.S. and Mexico are neighbors, and leverage exists on both sides of the border.


Trump’s incoming Cabinet knows Mexico well. Rex Tillerson, the incoming Secretary of State, negotiated one of the most significant oil deals with Mexico just before he left ExxonMobil.

Three years ago, Peña Nieto shepherded the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry and in December 2016, several companies, including ExxonMobil won contracts to develop deep-water contracts in the Gulf of Mexico and NAFTA’s Chapter 11 protects those investments against termination.

The Executive Orders signed by the President that propose to restrict immigration, improve border security, cut funding to sanctuary cities, and construct the wall with the stated intent to bill the Mexican government, was heard in Mexico as a threat to bully a neighbor of 122 million people into submission. Mexico has plenty of tools to face down such a bully and, as always, to the extent there is a David-Goliath aspect to the encounter, the little guy has less to lose.

If Trump wants to fulfill his campaign promise, there is a way to get it right.

George W. Bush made Mexico his first state dinner. Mexico was the first country he visited. Needless to say, as a former Texas Governor, he knew well what problems could occur. The newly elected Mexican President at the time, Vicente Fox, had just won the first election in seventy-one years against the ruling PRI party. Bush started the wall and six hundred miles of wall were installed.

In November 2000, I was in the Mexican Palacio Nacional with the CBS 60 Minutes team for an interview by the late Morley Safer with Vicente Fox;  I later spoke with Fox separately, at his home, the day before his meeting with President Bush, in 2001. To a Joint Meeting of Congress on September 6, 2001, Fox said, “The overarching question is not, then, whether we can afford to trust each other, but whether we can afford not to.”

Five days later, the U.S. experienced the largest single attack on American soil. As a country, our focus was on protecting the homeland and healing. Mexico — U.S. relations were not the focus.

The last gasp effort by bipartisan immigration warriors on Capitol Hill — the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and Senator Lindsey Graham — tried and failed to negotiate comprehensive immigration bill that would have set the stage for a rational stream of workers and the tightening of the border.

Since that time, crime on the border — in the absence of a comprehensive immigration agreement – has skyrocketed. Americans living in southwest states are prey to drug lords, as are Mexicans. Mexico has tried to stop the crime and prosecutors are routinely killed.

The one bright side during that period is what has happened with migration. After NAFTA passed, Mexico’s economy grew, creating a large middle class resulting in a negative flow of migrants from Mexico. As the staff director of the Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee of the House of Representatives when NAFTA was being negotiated, I know it was difficult to negotiate.

Today, NAFTA is out of date. A new agreement would take years. U.S. would suffer job loss: 4.9 million jobs in the U.S. are dependent on U.S. trade with Mexico. U.S. goods and services trade last year was an eye-popping $583.6 billion. But in 2016, there was a trade deficit of $53.8 billion that needs to be fixed.

What NAFTA was intended to do was make U.S. goods competitive with the European Union. U.S.–Mexico cooperation on migration has increased dramatically. Mexico works with the U.S. to stem the waves of migrants. But, the border is porous and crime has increased.

A Mexican official told me recently, “Does President Trump really want to close the door to U.S.–Mexico cooperation? All we would need to do is open the spigot at our Southern border, and the flood would start.”

To be clear, Mexico is not threatening to do that. But, 5,000 new border agents would not be able to stem the tide without Mexico’s cooperation.

During the campaign, Trump received support for the Mexico focus because Americans want jobs and less crime. But, that has to be understood in the context of the fact that more Americans travel to Mexico than any other country. It topped the international travel for Americans in 2016 with 25 million.

Rather than starting a war of words with Mexico, one of the U.S.’ allies and a neighbor, the U.S. should be working with Mexico before they walk away from more than the January 31 meeting.

Pamela Falk, former staff director of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House of Representatives, is CBS News TV & Radio Foreign Affairs Analyst & U.N. Resident Correspondent and holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law. She can be reached at @PamelaFalk

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Build That Wall Immigration Lindsey Graham Mexico Mexico City United States Washington D.C.

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