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Cómo Se Dice, ‘Lost in Translation’?

On immigration, drugs, and virtually every other pressing policy issue, why can’t the United States and Mexico stop talking past each other?

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

By now, the number is well known: From October 2013 to June 15 of this year, 52,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers were caught at the American border with Mexico, twice the number for the same period in the previous year. Responding to the influx of young migrants and the public outcry they’ve provoked, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to provide nearly $4 billion to establish new detention facilities, increase aerial surveillance capacity, and hire more immigration judges to speed up the processing of the detained. The proposal has been met with skepticism, not only from Obama’s political opponents, but also from immigration activists who argue that it is yet another example of the U.S. effort to stem the flow of migrants without addressing the systemic problems in Central America — gang violence, weak rule of law, limited economic opportunity — that motivate their flight.

And worrying to many experts is the fact that the policy was developed with little input from the country through which these migrants enter America.

Although commercially entwined and geographically intimate, Mexico and the United States are stuck in a dysfunctional bilateral rut. Immigration, drug violence, and a recalibrated balance of trade have their leaders talking past each other — when they talk at all. After 18 months in office — one-fourth of his term — Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto had not spent more than 24 hours in the United States.

The relationship is undermined by politics and also by perception: These countries — and their citizens — simply don’t get one another. From their perch north of the Rio Grande, Americans fail to acknowledge that the debate on immigration is also one of emigration. Mexicans, for their part, view U.S. law enforcement efforts to address drug trafficking with suspicion. Indeed, the efficacy of policies on both sides of the border is weakened by a misunderstanding of national interests, cultures, and histories.

The neighbors’ failure to empathize with one another is all the more troubling given their mutual reliance: Around 11 million Mexicans live in America and send $20 billion a year to their relatives back home. (According to a recent Pew Research Center study, "the U.S. has more immigrants from Mexico alone … than any other country has immigrants," period.) One million Americans live in Mexico, more than in any other country. Trade between the countries amounts to almost $500 billion a year, or five times the figure from before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect 20 years ago. Mexico is America’s No. 2 commercial partner, right after Canada; the United States is No. 1 for Mexico, and investment from the United States represents half of all foreign investment there in the past 13 years.

Meanwhile, 300 million people cross Mexico’s northern border legally each year. A billion dollars in goods cross it every day via 45 different ports of entry. The 2,000 miles between Matamoros and Tijuana, Brownsville and San Diego form the busiest border in the world.

All of this adds up to an urgent reality check: The opportunity cost of a failure by the two countries to solve their shared problems — and leverage their collective advantages — could be ruinous.


North Americans feel little in the way of continental identity. Late last year, the Center for North American Studies at American University did a survey in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Asked to which group they felt they belonged first and foremost, North Americans said they belonged mainly to their country, state, or town. Eleven percent saw themselves as citizens of the world. Only 3 percent identified themselves as belonging to North America.

So what do Americans and Mexicans see as they gaze across their shared border? Americans, in particular, are surprisingly uninformed about their southern neighbor: Only 20 percent of Americans know that Mexico is a top-five trading partner of the United States, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs report. When asked as part of the 2013 American University survey which countries are the largest export markets for U.S. goods, Americans said China and Japan — when in fact the United States actually exports more to Mexico than to China and Japan combined.

But the problem extends well beyond ignorance of facts; there’s also the matter of plain old dislike. Sixty-five percent of Mexicans view the United States favorably, but 52 percent of Americans view Mexico unfavorably, according to the latest data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey puts at 32 (100 being the most favorable) Americans’ opinion of their southern neighbor, 18 points down from the same survey 10 years ago.

Immigration is the main driver of Americans’ negative view of Mexico, while the secondary one is violence triggered by Mexico’s war against drug cartels. Gruesome images of that war proliferate in the American media. But in reality (and unbeknownst to most Americans, it seems) immigration and violence — a lethal cocktail profoundly affecting Mexico — can be traced in no small part back to the United States. Mexico is the largest provider of illegal drugs to a hungry U.S. market, and American firearms dealers are the largest supplier of weapons to Mexicans, including criminals.

Under Felipe Calderón, who served as Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies enjoyed unprecedented access to their Mexican counterparts, as joint operations and tasks forces were put in place. In return, Calderón asked only that the United States stanch the illegal flow of firearms into Mexico. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, between 2007 and 2011 Mexico recovered and submitted nearly 100,000 firearms to ATF for tracing; more than 68,000 came from sources in the United States.

Not only were Calderón’s pleas never heeded, but the ATF launched an operation in which it deliberately allowed some 2,000 guns to be purchased in the United States and brought into Mexico as part of a sting operation. When Operation Fast and Furious was revealed in 2011, it emerged that some of those guns were used in a massacre in Ciudad Juárez, where a drug gang murdered 15 Mexican children.

From Mexico’s perspective, the illegal entrants classified by the United States as OTMs, or "other than Mexicans" — the Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans passing through Mexico to cross illegally into the United States — are a humanitarian and law-enforcement calamity, providing both victims and recruits for criminal cartels in Mexico itself. According to the Mexican Human Rights Commission, every year at least 11,000 Central American migrants become victims of Mexican criminal organizations that kidnap them for ransoms demanded from their family members in the United States. (The humanitarian disaster is perhaps best exemplified by the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, a small town close to the U.S.-Mexico border, at the hands of the Zetas, a bloody drug cartel turned human-trafficking organization.)

Also providing fodder for Mexican cartels, since 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has increased deportations of illegal aliens under a policy to maximize "the removal of those who pose the greatest threat to public safety or national security." According to the latest U.S. government figures, about 450,000 Mexicans who committed crimes in the United States were returned home between 2008 and 2011, under a program called Rapid REPAT, offering undocumented immigrants convicted of criminal offenses early release in exchange for immediate repatriation. As America un-burdens its justice system, Mexico absorbs fresh waves of criminal recruits for the cartels.

Tijuana, a city of about 1.5 million people, has received some 150,000 deportees in the last four years. Most linger there or in nearby cities, with no job prospects, looking for a way to go back to the United States. The cartels scoop them up. In 2007, members of the city’s leading drug cartel fired 200 shots at the home of Alberto Capella, an activist who had organized rallies there to protest the lack of security. After the siege, when the mayor asked Capella to abandon his NGO and put on a uniform, he agreed, serving as the chief of police there from 2010 to 2013. He made strides in reducing homicides and kidnappings, but by the end of his term, the hundreds of Mexicans being deported every day from San Diego, often at night and with no prior warning, were his most pressing concern. Similar situations persist in cities all along the Mexican border.


Where Washington sees the need for more fences, police, and drones, both the United States and Mexico would actually benefit from improved border infrastructure. The Tijuana-San Diego region is home to the busiest and most inefficient stretch of border in the world. In 2010, the San Diego Association of Governments and the California Department of Transportation estimated that delays at the border cost the state of California around $4 billion and more than 25,000 jobs a year. A U.S.-Mexican agreement to reduce waiting times faltered after the economic crisis and the U.S. budget sequester. Lines are still two and three hours long at peak times.

To make matters worse, despite shared interests, collaboration between the two governments has deteriorated since Peña Nieto took office. The Mexican government created what it called a "one-stop window" in the Interior Ministry, disallowing direct contacts between individual agencies. The Americans complained, and the policy has since been relaxed somewhat. But tensions persist. When justice officials in the United States asked for the extradition of Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán, a notorious drug kingpin arrested in February, as had been granted with many cartel bosses during the Calderón administration, the Mexican government answered with a clear refusal.

In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, Peña Nieto spoke openly about what he called "inconsistency" from the United States in the drug war, in which Washington asks other countries to combat drug cartels while, state by state, marijuana becomes legal in America. Peña Nieto said, "[W]e cannot continue on this path of inconsistency between legalization that has occurred in some parts, especially in the largest consumer market, which is the U.S., and we in Mexico continue criminalizing marijuana production."

By contrast, however, Peña Nieto has been hesitant to criticize U.S. immigration policy head-on. In May 2013, when questioned about Washington’s impending immigration bill, Peña Nieto provided a terse two-word answer to the press: Immigration policy was a "domestic affair" of the United States.

The fault lines for the continental frenemies, however, go well beyond immigration and drugs. The United States and Mexico trade $1.4 billion every single day thanks to NAFTA. Yet the agreement isn’t just about trade: It accords Mexico an equal seat at the continental table — formal partnership in a bloc of three in which Mexico was to be as respected an interlocutor as Canada. When the pact was being negotiated, Americans were eager to include rules allowing their investment in oil and electricity in Mexico, two sectors in which the country had among the most restrictive rules in the world. Since then, Mexico has modified its constitution and is in the process of approving laws to allow private and foreign investment in oil and electricity. But it may be too late for that deal to be a new, genuine driver of bilateral progress.

For the first time in decades, during the first trimester of 2014, the oil trade balance between the two countries favored the United States — by $551 million. The opening of the oil market will be attractive to American companies, but it is no longer a strategic imperative for their government, as it was 20 years ago when America was more dependent on foreign oil.


Amid all the policy confusion, there are signs that Mexicans’ regard for the United States, while still better than the reverse view, may be waning. Just days before this year’s World Cup, the New York Times published a poll of 19 countries participating in the tournament. When asked which team they would be rooting against, Mexicans’ top answer was the United States. (This isn’t the first sporting event where divisiveness has been on display: In the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. team eliminated Mexico. A couple of years later, Mexicans fans chanted "¡Osama, Osama!" during a game, invoking the name of America’s chief international nemesis.)

The unsportsmanlike tone hints at the larger dysfunction — and the impact that dysfunction might have, if it is not addressed. An inefficient border that costs millions every day; a senseless immigration policy from Central America to California that exacts an unacceptable price in terms of human suffering and lives; resentment and suspicion that undermine a common policy to deal with drugs, guns, and crime; allowing the cartels to grow, kill, and prosper; and a failure to cultivate complementary regional labor markets that could help spur growth on both sides of the border.

Before NAFTA, the United States and Mexico worked together for peace in Central America. They then crafted an immigration and labor agreement that recognized the realities of both countries — but that was eventually frustrated by 9/11. Since then, things have only soured.

Today, Peña Nieto is the first Mexican president in more than 30 years who has not studied or lived in the United States or any other country. His English is middling. Meanwhile, embattled by an economic crisis and his effort to wind down two wars in the Middle East, Obama has never placed Mexico high on his agenda. In other words, the administrations of both countries are looking inward. If they don’t look toward each other with a desire to understand and cooperate, the two countries will stand to lose a lot more than just a friendly neighbor.

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