Mexico may not take back illegal immigrants expelled under the Trump Administration’s new policies, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray has suggested. The Guardian reports:
Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister, was responding to Donald Trump’s plans to enforce immigration rules more vigorously against undocumented migrants, which could lead to mass deportations to Mexico, not just of Mexicans but also citizens of other Latin American countries.
“We are not going to accept it because we don’t have to accept it,” Videgaray said, according to the Reforma newspaper. “I want to make clear, in the most emphatic way, that the government of Mexico and the Mexican people do not have to accept measures that one government wants to unilaterally impose on another.”
It’s hard to tell if the Mexican FM was talking about all illegal immigrants (including Mexicans) expelled by the U.S., or just those from third countries in Latin America. But this distinction cuts less weight than it at first appears. When Americans hear Mexicans fretting about migrant camps of Central Americans accumulating in Mexico, they hear that Mexico expects us to deal with a problem that they let pass through. Meanwhile, the proposition that its unfair for America to expel Mexicans back into Mexico is almost certainly popular in Mexico. As of 2013, polls showed that 66% of Mexicans believed that the U.S. has no right to limit immigration. And if anything like two-thirds of Mexicans still believe that the U.S. has no right to close the border, it’s going to be hard for a foreign minister to take a different tack.
In Mexico, there is a folk belief that Mexicans retained the right to live across the border in the 1848 treaty. Given the nature of the border, that was de facto 100 percent true for generations, and there was a lot of moving back and forth. Even the law that launched the most restrictive period in U.S. immigration history, the 1924 Reed-Johnson Act, exempted the Western hemisphere from the quota system—historically, U.S. law has in fact backed up the Mexican interpretation of the nature of the border. (This is not to mention the last half-century’s history of tacit but pervasive toleration of illegal immigration from official America.)
So the Mexican folk belief may be wrong about the legal status of the 1848 frontier, but its historic memory is right. Meanwhile, the U.S. folk memory is that the southern border “used to be” secure, but recently became insecure. This is of course a myth as well, but it is as we know hard for American politicians to give that message.
At a certain level, what we have is a disagreement between two peoples over the nature of the border—not its location, but its nature. The American people by and large want the border to be hard; Mexicans think it always has been and should remain soft. And to some degree, the historic softness of the border is part of how Mexican opinion reconciles itself to the Cession.
Both countries have reason to be annoyed at one another now. On the U.S. side, the shifting demographics of Mexico mean that a lot of the movement across the border is no longer Mexican; it is Central American. From a U.S. point of view, there’s a reasonable case that rather than Mexicans using the northern border as a traditional safety valve, Mexico is exporting its own migrant problem into the U.S. And there’s truth to this: as Michael Barone has demonstrated, it’s only been the increase in Central American migration that has kept immigration levels up as Mexican immigration went down.
Meanwhile, on the Mexican side, there’s a legitimate sense that the U.S. wants to change the rules unilaterally: both to tighten the border AND to change the trade relationship, enshrined in a treaty, to Mexico’s detriment. For twenty years, NAFTA has been a cornerstone of Mexican economic policy; to renegotiate it cannot be welcome. Mexican politicians will now need to fight an anti-American populist wave—and probably the ones who surf it rather than riding it will end up in power in the next elections. (See this piece in TAI by Russell Crandall on the recent rise of populist, anti-American leaders in Mexican politics.)
As you can probably see, there’s one big, obvious way out of this mess: the U.S. and Mexico could cooperate on strengthening the security of Mexico’s southern frontier, come to reasonable immigration agreement between themselves, and then work cooperatively to deal with the Central American migration problem which is currently the driver of Latin American immigration and affects us both. And, in a longer-term view, there are tremendous opportunities that could be found in shifting the way the U.S. makes available Medicare and other retirement-related programs for Americans living abroad. U.S. retirement in Mexico would shift trade to services away from manufacturing, and provide inducements for low- and medium-skill service workers to stay in Mexico, while growing the Mexican economy.
But right now is a season for emotion and score-settling. The U.S. and Mexican populists wouldn’t be the first leaders to talk tough and make nice; but the smart money is, unfortunately, probably on a continuing worsening of relations.