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Mexico-U.S. relations: beyond ‘looniness, stupidity and flatulence’

“As in all good families, there will be looniness and stupidity and flatulence on both sides of the border.”

The speaker, Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan, shared that colorful observation with an appreciative luncheon audience of the Economic Club of Minnesota last week as he warned about political rhetoric during both nations’ 2012 presidential elections.

Sarukhan said both countries “will have to Teflon-coat our bilateral relationship so some of the stupidity that gets said on the campaign trail on either side of the border does not stick.”

Both countries also will need to “lock in the fundamental sea change that has occurred” in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Since the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) was passed nearly two decades ago, trade among the U.S., Mexico and Canada has been “a fundamental driver” re-making the relationship a more equal and strategic one for all the partners, he said.

(You can listen to Ambassador Sarukhan’s full comments here.)

Despite popular notions, Mexico has become a middle-income nation with population growth equal to or lower than the U.S. He also reminded the audience that 1.5 million Americans live in Mexico, further tying the two countries’ mutual interests.

This past quarter, Mexico surpassed China as the United States’ No. 2 trading partner, behind Canada.

Trade with Mexico directly supports 10 million American jobs, Sarukhan said, and Mexico is the No. 1 or 2 trading partner with 28 states. (Mexico is the fourth-largest export market for Minnesota, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.)

Those facts “don’t fit on a bumper sticker. It’s much easier to say ‘No to free trade,’ or ‘No to NAFTA’,” he added.

But the complex relationship between neighbors includes some problems that will have to wait until after the elections in each country, the ambassador said. The illegal flows of guns and cash into Mexico and movement of drugs and people into the U.S. present the thorniest set of issues the two countries face, and will require joint action to solve. 

Sarukhan said the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S. has fallen dramatically in recent years, in part because of the collapse of the U.S. construction industry, as well as the strength of the Mexican economy, which grew 5.5 percent in 2010.

He also cited increased border security and the involvement of organized crime in human-smuggling rings. Both have increased the cost and risk for migrant workers who previously easily made annual, albeit illegal, round trips to the U.S. and back to Mexico.

The immigration issues will not be solved, Sarukhan said, unless two issues are addressed simultaneously: the flow of about 300,000 to 350,000 undocumented workers each year, and the existing 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Sarukhan proposed a documented guest worker program to address U.S. demand for seasonal workers and what he termed a “path to documentation” for those currently living in the U.S. illegally. That would include payment of a fine and “going to the back of the line” for U.S. citizenship.

Since 9/11, the perception of a safety threat from across the U.S.-Mexican border could derail the bilateral relationship, he said, so “it behooves Mexico to enhance security across the border.”

Sarukhan pointed to his country’s involvement in uncovering an alleged assassination plan against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and the recent foiling of plot to smuggle Muammar Qaddafi ‘s son into the country as evidence that Mexico is serious about border security.

Sarukhan also described Mexico’s emergence as a middle class society.

He cited conservative government economic policies that prevented the financial sector from getting into the risky investments that have hobbled most other economies.

The ambassador also credits an aggressive decades-long effort to lift 40 million Mexicans out of extreme poverty by linking government financial benefits to women and children’s participation in health care programs and children’s enrollment in school.

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