Mexico: Marching Into A Brave New Future

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 15:50

Agustín Barrios Gómez, Mexican Congressman (Diputado), PRD-Distrito Federal; Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), U.S. House of Representatives; and Dr. Luis Rubio, Founding Chairman, Center for Development Studies (CIDAC), Mexico City spoke. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Tony Payan, Director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's James A. Baker Institute.

The Editor is pleased to present a shortened version of a Mexico Briefing that took place in February 2013. It was organized by the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law. It featured presentations by members of Congress from both Mexico and the United States and by a leading Mexican political analyst. With recently elected congresses in both countries at the time of the Briefing, there was an opportunity for legislative action on both sides of the border to promote or hinder U.S.–Mexican legal relations. The discussion took place at the law offices of Fulbright & Jaworski and was co-sponsored by the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law and the Latin America Initiative at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Now, a year later, Stephen Zamora, Director of the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law, updates us on the important relationship between Mexico and the U.S. 

Prof. Zamora: At the time this symposium took place, there was considerable conjecture about the prospects for increased cooperation between governmental leaders in Mexico and the United States. At that time, with newly elected congresses in both countries, and with a newly elected Mexican president, an opportunity arose to solidify U.S.–Mexico collaboration. Diputado Barrios Gómez, Congressman Cuellar and Dr. Rubio expressed hopes for positive results on issues of concern to both Mexico and the United States. They also recognized the daunting task, and the difficult political impediments, that government leaders faced in trying to accomplish meaningful steps towards collaboration. In the year that has passed since this conversation took place, some very positive steps have been made. In December, the Mexican Congress approved the energy reform package put forward by President Peña Nieto, which will open the Mexican energy sector to greater foreign investment, and should revitalize the Mexican economy. The reforms should promote energy integration in North America. With three powerful energy-producing countries – Canada, Mexico and the United States – eventually building an integrated and diverse energy grid, North American competitiveness will be greatly enhanced.

In controlling organized crime, Mexican and U.S. security agencies have been cautiously, and quietly, pursuing new avenues of collaboration, given the change in Mexico’s government. Recent arrests in Mexico of major figures in the Mexican drug cartel are beginning to show positive results of this collaboration. Control of criminality in Mexico will not occur overnight; however, in my opinion, U.S. financial and intelligence support is essential if Mexico is to bring rampant criminality under control.

Finally, as to the possibility of meaningful immigration reforms in the United States, the past year does not appear to put us any closer to that goal, due to the political roadblocks in the U.S. Congress. Congressman Cuellar, a proponent of meaningful reform, must find more allies to build a coalition of support for an immigration policy that reflects the strides we have taken to build a secure and prosperous economy in North America.

To view a video recording of the entire briefing, visit and click on Mexico Briefings.

Mexico Briefing: A Forecast for Improved Bilateral Relations through Congressional Action

Diputado Barrios Gómez: I am obviously a huge believer in what we are doing. Mexico is a very friendly country. We are fundamentally probably the two most integrated countries on the planet. We have the most cross-border traffic in the world, with 350 million documented people crossing each year. We are the third most important trade relation vis-à-vis the U.S., probably coming up on second because our manufacturing base is growing. As you know, the histories of our countries are impossible to understand without reference to the 850,000 square miles of the U.S. that used to be a part of Mexico – not just Texas, but California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and parts of Utah and Wyoming. It’s now a function of our security that we understand each other. You cannot have 31 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S. with a chip on their shoulder and not understanding that Mexico is actually a fundamental part of North America. It’s just not good policy. Mexico City and Washington, DC don’t get it, but I know that certain parts of Texas actually do get it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to survive. The McAllen shopping mall had the highest level of purchases per square foot of any mall in the U.S. And why is that? It’s because of Monterrey. If we don’t understand Mexico, we can’t understand the economy of the southern U.S.

I’m going to give you a few more figures because I think this is important. There are 31 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S. and between one and three million Americans at any given time in Mexico, which is between four and twelve times more than the second most important country, which is Canada. Mexico has 50 consulates here, the largest consular presence in the U.S. of any country by far. This is true integration.

I invite the U.S. Congress to try to create a common narrative for the benefit of both our countries. Ten percent of the U.S. population now is Mexican or Mexican American. I’m not talking about Latino or Hispanic. We need to come to a common understanding such that we can actually be very proud of the heritage that we’ve created – whether you’re talking about the fact that the U.S. dollar sign is the Mexican peso sign, which is new Spain and Spain drawn together, or the fact that in Richmond, Virginia, the last wages that were paid to a Confederate soldier were actually in Mexican pesos, which was the only money that was worth anything at the time, or whether you’re talking about going to inner-city Los Angeles, which I’ve done, telling Mexican American kids in the 10th grade that on every single patrol car there is the seal of the city of Los Angeles. In the lower left-hand quadrant of that seal is the eagle and the snake, which is at the center of the Mexican flag, and what does that represent? It represents the founding of my city in 1325.

So I invite us to celebrate this common heritage – to believe in it and to benefit from it. A few days ago, Thomas Friedman from the New York Times published an article that started by saying that the future is not China or India (but of course it probably is), but Mexico. Obviously if Mexico rises, Texas is right there. Thank you very much.

Congressman Cuellar: Every day there is more than $1.2 billion of trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Take my hometown of Laredo, which is the third-largest port we have behind L.A., Long Beach, and New York; 40 percent of all the trade between the U.S. and Mexico comes through Laredo. It’s a large land port. There are six million American jobs right now because of the relationship we have with Mexico. If a product comes in from China, less than five percent of that import has American products. When a product comes in from Mexico, about 40 percent or so is made from American products. You can see the interconnection we have between both countries. In Laredo we always say the Rio Bravo doesn’t divide us but unites us, and I agree. The relationship we have is stronger than it’s been in recent years, and I think it’s going to continue to grow.

Some of us have been working on immigration reform for many years, and I’m glad other folks have joined us. Right after the election when President Obama got about 71 percent of the Hispanic vote and Democrats got about 61 percent of the vote across the nation, many recognized that immigration reform is something we have to do.

There are three parts of immigration reform that we have to have: border security, the guest worker plan, and the pathway for the 11 or 12 million undocumented individuals who we have here. First, how secure is the border? The number of Mexicans coming over is the lowest in 40 years, and a 2012 Pew study says that there actually are more Mexicans going back than coming in. Some folks feel border security is a fence, or the National Guard. I don’t support the wall, because a wall is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. Look at the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China. It takes someone 18 seconds to cross the border fence we now have. Second is a guest worker plan. During World War II when our young men went over to go fight, they left the rural areas of the U.S. What did the U.S. do? They entered an agreement with Mexico and they got into the Bracero Program, and that allowed the guest worker plan to work very well. The third part is what do we do about the 11 or 12 million undocumented individuals we have? Keep in mind that 40 percent of the 11 or 12 million undocumented persons came here through a legal permit visa and came in by plane or boat or car and they overstayed. You can put up the biggest fence you have, but it’s not going to stop at least 40 percent of those individuals. The security has to be done in a smart way with those three parts in place.

We’ve been pushing this for many years. President Bush couldn’t get his party to support him. Kennedy and McCain had a very good piece of legislation, but the House came back with its version of that reform – they passed legislation to put in 700 miles of fence and made it a felony to dig a tunnel under it. But this year we have a very good opportunity.

We also have to deal with perception. If you look at FBI statistics, you will see that border town crime rate is lower than the national crime rate, and if you want to compare Washington DC to Laredo or Brownsville, Washington DC is more dangerous than Laredo. I find that people who live the farthest from the border have the strongest opinion about it. We have to fight that perception to deal with immigration reform.

We will continue working with Mexico on Plan Merida, and we can work with the administration on whatever adjustments it wants to make to that plan. The intelligence part is going to be the most important part of that. For every dollar we put into the plan, Mexico puts in about 1.6 dollars. It is in our self-interest to have a secure and prosperous Mexico. The almost 2,000 miles we share with Mexico says our relationship has to get stronger.

Dr. Rubio: I’d like to talk about the politics that are going on in Mexico. If one looks at Mexico’s future, they often see issues that are staggering, like security and drugs and the rule of law. But if one looks back, it is astounding how much Mexico has changed over the last 30 or 40 years. It has gone from being a largely rural country to a majority urban, and an economy that today is largely industrial, whose exports are totally tied to the U.S.  In fact, Mexico has become an export powerhouse that is rapidly replacing China. Mexico will likely be the second-largest trading nation with the U.S. in the not-too-distant future. It also went from went from having a very protected and to a large extent subsidized internal economy to largely a market economy totally integrated into the global, industrial arena. On the political side, it has gone from a semi-authoritarian political system to an incipient, still rancorous democracy. So the country has changed not only physically but in many other regards.

These changes have often been cataclysmic, but the one thing that has never adjusted is the government itself. The fundamental challenge from my perspective is the ability to channel conflict – having the proper system of public security, to make decisions to enforce the rules and the laws. One way to look at Mexico is to look at Chicago in the 1920s or Mississippi in the 1960s and the civil rights movement and the need for the federal marshals to enforce the laws and make it possible for that region to change. The U.S. faced big challenges in those two moments but found a way to fix them by changing or adjusting the rules and enforcing them thereafter. Mexico has no such capacity and that I believe is the main challenge. If I were to summarize, I would say that Mexico has enormous potential and opportunities; it just hasn’t been managed very well for a long time.

Where is Mexico today? There is a new government in place that took over in December 2012. The real question is, can or will the government deal with new challenges with building state capacity and with creating conditions for higher rates of growth? They certainly have the skills to do it. These are expert professionals that can get things done.

Peña’s not going to be able to deliver on a promise of economic growth unless he brings up strong institutions. As of today it doesn’t look likely that the president will attempt such a daring course, but there are three reasons why this might change. First, the government’s objective or the PRI’s objective is to stay in power beyond the end of this administration. For that to happen, he has to address basic issues like economic growth and public security.

The second one is the honeymoon is now over. The president is going to have to show what he is really made of and that is going to happen sometime in the next few months. The last reason why I believe there is a better opportunity is that as much as they might want to rebuild the past, it is simply impossible. Mexico’s problems require a government that helps solve problems, not by imposing solutions but by creating rules and then enforcing them. The biggest problem, in my mind, in the last 20 years has been the lack of political capacity to get things done. Mexico has to be the only country in the world to have had three presidents in a row who were not politicians and therefore couldn’t get a single deal made.

One advantage Peña has is he’s a natural political operator. He can get any deal done. He doesn’t have the vision for development, but ultimately that’s a much easier thing to get into the process than the opposite. The last three administrations have shown that the vision is necessary, but without the political capacity change is impossible.

Diputado Barrios Gómez: The reason Mexico is having these problems is precisely because we have turned a rural, poor, country into a predominantly middle-class urban country of $11,400 GDP per capita. As Luis was saying, at the end of the day, it all comes down to political will. Public security comes down to defining a space and protecting it. Americans are very effective at that, and that’s why we need their participation. It’s not about money. This is much more about intelligence, mechanisms, and institution building.

Congressman Cuellar: Let me mention a few more things that the U.S. and Mexico should be talking about. Besides the global partnerships like the transpacific partnership and immigration reform and making sure we strengthen the business-to-business relationship, we certainly have to look at international education and an exchange between the U.S. and Mexico, not just students to students but professors to professors and joint scientific projects. The other thing we have to look at is our ports of entry. The U.S. has a tendency to spend a lot of money on its seaports and airports, but 88 percent of all the people and 80 percent of all the goods coming to the U.S. come through land ports. 

We also have to look at the entire region as an energy block, not just as a trade block. Oil imports coming into the U.S. back in 2005 made up about 60 percent of domestic consumption. We brought it down to 35 percent because we’re drilling more. If you look at what Mexico, the U.S. and Canada together hold with their natural gas and petroleum, we could be the new Saudi Arabia of the world.

Dr. Rubio: Migration is an economic phenomenon and not a political one. How would services work without them? If Mexicans stopped coming, and they will eventually stop simply because of demographics, somebody else is going to fill the vacuum. Arizonans have evicted most of the illegal Mexicans, but now they have Russians. It’s not as if the need ceases to exist.

Geography has placed these two nations together in a way that we cannot separate, and neither will succeed without the other. Until that sinks in, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed. That’s ultimately the real challenge. I hope people like the congressmen here today will lead this effort because they obviously can sell it well. Thank you.