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Remaking and improving the US-Mexico relationship

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President Joe Biden held his first bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last week, providing the first glimpse into what lies ahead for the U.S.-Mexico relationship. The future looks bright.

The tradition of recent U.S. presidents — inviting the Mexican president to Washington and taking their first foreign trip to Canada shortly after taking office — was upended in 2017, when Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Biden, who had a call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in late February, restored this norm, albeit in reverse order, reminding the region that despite the turmoil of the past four years, America still recognizes the importance of its partnerships with its closest neighbors. 

In his meeting with López Obrador, Biden set a drastically different tone from his predecessor, portraying America’s southern neighbor as a connector to the rest of Latin America rather than a divider.

Biden is right to change the tone in the bilateral relationship with Mexico. There is an inextricable linkage between the two countries — not just in trade and commerce, but also the shared cultural, environmental and demographic destiny — that, to American’s detriment, was overlooked during the past four years. Biden’s early engagement with Mexico is an important step in reversing that mistake, demonstrating to López Obrador and to the Mexican public that the United States values its relationship with Mexico and intends to preserve and strengthen it. Among the issues Biden and López Obrador discussed were the economic recovery, a COVID-19 response, migration and climate change cooperation and joint development efforts in Southern Mexico and Central America. Both presidents acknowledged the pressing urgency of those issues and called for collective action. 

In sharp contrast to Trump’s negligent “America First”’ foreign policy, Biden’s approach rightly recognizes that America’s prosperity is tied to the prosperity and resilience of its southern neighbor. Before the pandemic, Mexico was the United States’s largest trading partner, with $1.7 billion in two-way trade occurring each day. Apart from global manufacturing supply chains, the U.S. and Mexico depend on each other for critical supply chains that tie the two nations’ economic security and competitiveness to each other even more directly. Both neighbors experienced just how essential these supply chains are in the early days of the pandemic, with the disruption of critical goods such as respirators, protective personal equipment  and other vital medical supplies. If disruptions to these global manufacturing supply chains continue, both countries will struggle to get their economies running again. Some experts have called on the Biden administration to share manufacturing capacity with its closest neighbors, such as Mexico, to spread production lines for critical components that drive their respective economies. Doing so would not only safeguard existing supply chains between the United States and Mexico but it would also better prepare the two countries for the next global disruption. 

The U.S. and Mexico should also join forces on a COVID-19 response to help reduce secondary economic impacts in both countries and ensure that long-established, cross-border lifestyles are neither limited nor further contribute to the spread of the virus. Mexico is currently reporting over 185,000 COVID-19 deaths — the third highest death toll in the world. And there is evidence that the reported total is a vast undercount given the discrepancies between reported hospital deaths versus death certificates issued throughout the country. Taking a page from the Trump administration, the Mexican government similarly failed with its COVID-19 response from the start, with inadequate public messaging and safety measures to avoid the spread of the virus, no social spending package, nor a real vaccine distribution plan. Even Mexico’s coronavirus czar has been hospitalized recently due to COVID-19 symptoms — this, after he spent almost a year downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. Both countries should seize the opportunity to tackle the pandemic together, leverage recent successes in the U.S. to develop a collaborative strategy, adjust border policies and implement joint measures on testing, tracing and vaccine rollout and distribution to protect the health and safety of all.

The U.S. and Mexico should also use this new opening to improve the management of shared migration challenges in ways that help both countries, instead of building walls that aid the prosperity of neither. While the U.S. reforms its immigration system — and its asylum and refugee systems — into one that is fair, humane and actually works, it can simultaneously help build up Mexico’s own internal asylum system, building up capacity on the Mexican side of the U.S. border and encouraging a humanitarian response on Mexico’s southern border. 

Biden already announced an economic aid and security plan designed to address the root causes that drive people to migrate toward the U.S. from the region, and López Obrador expressed his desire to help address migration coming out of Central America and from Mexico to the U.S. The success of this endeavor will depend heavily on extensive collaboration with one another but also with civil society, the private sector, international organizations and other governments in the region. The ultimate goal must be the promotion of safe, legal and orderly paths for those who wish to reunite with family abroad or seek out greater opportunities.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship will not be perfect. Obstacles will emerge between the two neighbors that will make cooperation on these issues challenging. Recent events such as the arrest of Mexican Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda by the U.S. government and López Obrador’s attempts to overhaul Mexico’s electricity market offer previews of what can, and will, strain bilateral cooperation. But these challenges notwithstanding, the U.S. and Mexico are bound to a shared destiny. There is more that connects us than divides us and all that is required is for the U.S. and Mexico to both pursue a productive, interest-driven relationship. So far, it’s off to a new and promising start with plenty more to come.

Joel Martinez is the Mexico policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador biden administration Biden foreign policy COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Justin Trudeau US-Mexico relations

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