The relationship between the United States and Mexico is at the center of a fierce political debate over immigration, trade and national security. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump accuses Mexico of stealing U.S. jobs and vows to build “a big, beautiful, powerful wall” to bar “rapists” and criminals from crossing the 1,951-mile border between the two countries. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has taken a far less inflammatory stance on Mexico, saying her party “builds bridges, not walls,” though she once supported 700 miles of border fencing to stem illegal immigration. Meanwhile, President Obama, while decrying the “scourge” of violence from Mexican drug cartels, defends the U.S.-Mexico relationship, saying “the very character of the United States is shaped by Mexican-Americans who have shaped our culture, our politics, our business.” The mixed views underscore the complex ties and growing tensions between the United States and Mexico, an emerging economic power with an expanding middle class but a nation troubled by political corruption and continuing drug-related violence.
Go to top
At a July 22 press conference in Washington with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, President Obama defended the U.S.-Mexico relationship, which has become the center of a fierce U.S. election-year debate about immigration, trade and security.
“The United States values tremendously our enduring partnership with Mexico and our extraordinary ties of family and friendship with the Mexican people,” Obama said, adding that his endorsement “bears repeating, especially given some of the heated rhetoric that we sometimes hear.”1
Obama undoubtedly was referring to comments by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who a day earlier had told the Republican National Convention: “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” Trump has called undocumented Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and his campaign website says Mexicans use “illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty [from] their own country.”2
Trump has vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the U.S-Mexico border, paid for by Mexico, to halt further illegal immigration. In August he said he might soften his position on deportations and then traveled to Mexico on Aug. 31 to meet with Peña Nieto. Trump later said the two discussed the wall but not who would pay for it. Peña Nieto subsequently tweeted, however, that he had “made it clear [to Trump] that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”3 Trump also has castigated trade with Mexico, calling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — which since 1994 has lowered trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada — “one of the worst economic deals ever made by our country.”4
|Demonstrators at a Donald Trump rally in Anaheim, Calif., on May 25, 2016, protest the Republican presidential candidate’s plans for “a big, beautiful, powerful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to bar what he says are “rapists” and criminals coming into the United States. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton says the Democratic Party “builds bridges, not walls.” (AFP/Getty Images/Mark Ralston)|
Yet Obama and Peña Nieto called NAFTA mutually beneficial. “Mexico is our third-largest trading partner,” Obama said. “We sell more to Mexico than we do to China, India and Russia combined.”5 And in contrast to Trump, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to provide a route to citizenship for most unauthorized immigrants and hailed their contributions to the United States.
The stark differences in perspective highlight the strong reactions the U.S.-Mexico relationship evokes on both sides of the border. While many Americans worry about illegal immigration, drugs and trade with their southern neighbor, Mexicans dislike Trump’s rhetoric and the treatment of Mexicans in the United States, particularly after Arizona in 2010 authorized police to stop people and ask for documents proving they are in the country legally.6
Many Americans who support stricter border controls believe Mexican immigration has cost native citizens jobs and fear U.S. culture is being overwhelmed by its growing Hispanic component. But others say the close relationship strengthens both countries, providing increased economic opportunity through free trade, and that immigration adds to the richness of American culture.
Historically, Mexico — which lost more than a third of its territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War (1846–48) — long harbored resentment toward its northern neighbor for the defeat. And over time Americans’ attitudes and policies toward Mexico and Mexican immigrants have varied from hostility to relative acceptance, largely depending on fluctuations in the U.S. labor market.
The Trump candidacy has inflamed many of those underlying tensions. Peña Nieto has compared Trump to fascist leaders in Europe who exploited fear to gain power just before World War II. “That’s how Mussolini got in, that’s how Hitler got in. They took advantage of a situation, a problem,” Peña Nieto told a Mexican newspaper in March.7
Trump’s rhetoric touches a nerve in Mexico, where “the big fear … is always that Mexico becomes a political football in any U.S. presidential campaign,” says Rafael Fernández de Castro, a professor of international affairs at Syracuse University and a former foreign affairs adviser to the president of Mexico. “And this time, Mexico has become the No. 1 political football.”
Mexicans also worry about the impact Trump’s words will have on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States, Fernández de Castro adds. “He’s allowing this racism to be out there, and I believe it’s going to have a long-lasting effect,” he says. Trump’s supporters often shout racist epithets about Hispanics at his rallies, and his supporters occasionally have faced off in violent confrontations with protesters — both Mexican-Americans and others.8
Trump’s supporters say he has merely highlighted a crucial issue. “There is no greater physical or economic threat to Americans today than our open border,” the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing 16,500 Border Patrol agents, said in a statement endorsing Trump for president.9
Others, however, cite statistics showing that illegal immigration has slowed significantly, with 188,000 Mexican migrants apprehended last year trying to cross the border illegally — down from 1.6 million in 2000.10 And, they note, more Mexicans have gone home in recent years than have arrived. Analysts primarily blame the limited job prospects in the post-recession U.S. economy, as well as the billions of dollars the United States has spent in the past 15 years fortifying the border and the sixfold increase in the number of Border Patrol agents surveilling the region.
In addition, the Mexican government has been helping the United States stem the recent surge of Central American refugees trying to reach the United States through Mexico after fleeing gang violence in their home countries.11
The heated immigration and trade debates have obscured the complicated reality of the relationship between the two neighbors. The 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexican border is one of the world’s busiest, with the San Ysidro border station in San Diego alone handling more than 32 million legal crossings in 2015.12
Moreover, the two cultures increasingly have become intertwined. American popular culture and consumer products long have held sway in Mexico.13 And with 35 million Americans — about 11 percent of the U.S. population — having Mexican heritage, Spanish is the second most common language in the United States.14 And as America’s Latino population has grown, Spanish-language TV channels, books and other publications have proliferated.15
“The United States now consumes more tortillas than Mexico,” says Rebecca Vargas, president and CEO of the New York-based U.S-Mexico Foundation, which promotes the binational relationship. “Culturally, we are merging. We have been for many years.”
However, foreign affairs analysts say, Americans have major misconceptions about their southern neighbor. “Mexico has its problems, but it’s actually become, in the last 10 to 20 years, a much more developed, sophisticated, democratic country than most Americans realize,” says Andrew Selee, founding director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a policy forum in Washington.
Yet, only about one-fifth of Americans view Mexico favorably, and nearly two-thirds say it is “dangerous and unstable,” according to a June poll. One in three thinks Mexico is economically undeveloped, the poll found, and even fewer think it has a growing middle class.16
In fact, Mexico, with a population of about 121 million in 2015, has the world’s 15th-largest economy and trails only Brazil among Latin America’s economic powers. It also has a significant and growing middle class, although slightly less than half of the country’s population lives in poverty.17
Mexico ranks behind only Canada and China as a top U.S. trading partner, with U.S.-Mexico trade totaling more than $500 billion annually.18 That trade has grown dramatically since the two nations signed NAFTA, although experts disagree on the trade deal’s overall impact.
Americans’ views of Mexico as dangerous stem from its decades-old role as a major conduit for illegal drugs smuggled from Latin America into the United States by violent cartels. And while drug-related violence in Mexico had been declining overall in recent years, it appears to be on the rise again. But even as Americans worry about drugs pouring into the United States from Mexico, Mexicans complain that the United States is not doing enough to stop the illegal flow of guns into Mexico from America.
While hopes of a more stable and well-governed Mexico under Peña Nieto have not been fully realized, democracy has made strides, with criminal justice reforms enacted recently and gubernatorial elections this year yielding unexpected victories for challengers, seen by analysts as another sign of progress.19
Yet corruption and human rights abuses remain a serious problem, exemplified by the much-publicized 2014 unsolved murders of 43 college students near the southwestern town of Iguala, in Guerrero State. And political unrest periodically erupts, such as the lengthy ongoing teachers strike in the southern state of Oaxaca.20
As the U.S.-Mexico relationship moves to the forefront of the U.S. political debate, here are some of the questions being asked:
Mexicans make up nearly half of the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, although their share of that population has been decreasing steadily, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank.21
The great majority of those undocumented immigrants arrived by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The most recent wave of illegal immigration, which began in the 1980s, has led to repeated calls to secure the border, particularly in conservative circles, where the border frequently is portrayed as largely unprotected.
“As I have seen in my seven trips to the border, starting in 2005 … our borders are still wide open in spite of the best efforts of our dedicated Border Patrol agents,” wrote Bob Casimiro, former executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, which supports stricter restrictions on immigration.22
However, many experts who track border flows cite statistics showing that illegal immigration across the southwestern border has fallen dramatically since 2000, when it reached a modern high of 1.6 million people.23
“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was a fairly open border,” says Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. “But the border today is really very secure.”
Since undocumented crossings are a clandestine activity, the actual number of illegal entries is impossible to know precisely. But one widely used measure is the number of apprehensions recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol each year. The more people the Border Patrol is catching, the more people are believed to be trying to cross.
By that measure, the southwestern border is significantly less porous than in 2000, and the number of crossings has been falling. Last year, Border Patrol agents apprehended 331,333 illegal border crossers — 56 percent of them Mexicans and the rest mostly from Latin America.24 “People who think there are hordes of individuals who are trying to cross and breaching the border — that’s really misinformation,” says Payan.
According to the Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2014 more undocumented Mexican migrants went home than entered the United States. Many analysts attribute the net outflow to improved economic conditions in Mexico and the U.S. recession that began in 2008.25
Illegal flows from Mexico “stopped eight years ago,” says the Wilson Center’s Selee, referring to the net outflow. “They haven’t started again. It doesn’t mean that things are perfect in Mexico, but it means that increasingly there are jobs and opportunity there and people are staying.”
But Dan Stein, president of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which seeks to reduce overall immigration, disputes the significance of the Border Patrol statistics. “The decline in apprehensions is no indicator of anything, because this administration has made a point of not apprehending people,” he says.
Stein cites statistics that he says show the Obama administration has failed to aggressively remove undocumented migrants. FAIR says the number of overall removals — both at the border and from nonborder states — fell from 1.17 million in 2008, the year before Obama took office, to 235,413 last year, an 80 percent drop.26
But while Stein and others on the right say Obama has been soft on illegal immigration, many on the left, particularly immigrant-rights advocates, have dubbed him the “deporter-in-chief” for expelling a record number of immigrants — 2.5 million — since taking office.27
The difference in perspective lies, in part, in changes in how undocumented immigrants are treated today. In the past, many would-be immigrants caught at the border were simply put on buses and sent back without going through formal deportation proceedings. Today, in a shift that began under Obama’s predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, more undocumented immigrants are removed through a formal process, significantly increasing the official deportation numbers cited by immigrants-rights activists. In addition, the Obama administration says it has focused in nonborder states on expelling noncitizens with criminal records.28
Moreover, many experts say crossing the border illegally is more difficult today as a result of the U.S. government’s sustained border security build-up. “Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, the operational control of the border is much, much higher. You’re talking 650-plus miles of wall, cameras all over the place, sensors all over the place, [and many thousands more] border agents,” says Payan.
The “wall” Payan refers to is the 653 miles of border fencing erected by the United States since the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to calls for beefed-up border controls.29 In several urban areas, the fencing is made of tall metal plates — up to 18 feet high — and can be considered a wall. In rural areas, much of it consists of chain-link fencing, often with reinforced concrete posts that prevent vehicles from crashing through. In addition, the number of Border Patrol agents working on the southwestern border has risen from fewer than 2,500 in 1980 to more than 17,500 today, supported by new motion sensors, cameras and aerial drones.30
But Shawn Moran, vice president and spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council, says agents have seen a surge in illegal crossings at a few different sites along the border in the last year or so, particularly South Texas.31 “Other than Mexicans, we are seeing dramatic increases,” Moran says. “South Texas is on a pace to eclipse the numbers from 2014 [but] it’s really hard to quantify because we don’t know what we’re not catching. But everything I hear from agents is that there’s stuff getting through and stuff getting away.”
Many critics say Mexico should do more to secure the border, particularly against illegal trafficking of drugs and people. “The U.S.-Mexico border has become a very dangerous place,” says Stein. “The Mexican side is managed by [drug] cartels and organized crime elements, and this is a huge national security threat.”
But researchers say Mexican drug violence, which soared in the early 21st century, has declined in recent years.32 And even when it was at its height, they say, studies found that there was almost no spillover violence into U.S. border cities, which are safer on average than others in their states.33
Selee says the portrayal of Mexico as a dangerous place and the U.S. border as wide open is largely a manifestation of fears felt by many Americans due to the global competition for jobs and the growing multiracial character of America.
“Mexico’s become shorthand for the fears many people have about the outside world, and how it’s changing the United States,” says Selee. “It’s immigration, it’s jobs, it’s the changing demographics in the United States, and it all gets reduced to Mexicans.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated by Republican President George H. W. Bush’s administration and signed into law on Dec. 8, 1993, by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
“NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations,” Clinton said, referring to the United States, Mexico and Canada, as he signed the bill. “It will create the world’s largest trade zone and create 200,000 jobs in [the United States] by 1995 alone.”34
NAFTA would be the forerunner of trade agreements with other countries that would benefit U.S. workers, he said. “Good jobs, rewarding careers, broadened horizons for middle class Americans can only be secured by expanding exports and global growth,” Clinton said.35 NAFTA supporters also argued at the time that the agreement would help stem the flow of undocumented immigrants by spurring economic growth in Mexico, keeping more Mexicans employed at home.36
Twenty-three years later, polls show a significant portion of the American public opposing such agreements, believing they hurt U.S. workers.37 And NAFTA appears to have even less support than other trade agreements.
A Bloomberg Politics poll in March found that 44 percent of Americans say NAFTA has been bad for the U.S. economy, compared to 29 percent who say it has benefited the United States.38 Many Americans believe the agreement caused U.S. jobs to be shipped to Mexico.
Thea Lee, an economist and international trade expert with the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, says the agreement protected U.S. companies that opened facilities just south of the border, where they could take advantage of much lower wages. “NAFTA reduced the riskiness of moving production to Mexico, and it reduced trade barriers,” she says. “American companies closed down factories in the United States and moved to Mexico to produce products for the American market.”
|About 4,000 workers assemble medical devices at a Tijuana, Mexico, plant operated by Minneapolis-based Medtronic. President Obama strongly supports NAFTA, the U.S. trade pact with Mexico and Canada. “Mexico is our third-largest trading partner,” Obama said. “We sell more to Mexico than we do to China, India and Russia combined.” (Getty Images/Bloomberg/David Maung)|
A widely cited 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that works with the labor movement, estimated that nearly 700,000 U.S. jobs have been lost since NAFTA took effect, largely due to a growing trade deficit with Mexico, in which Americans import more Mexican products than they export to Mexico.39
In addition, a 2014 report by Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy organization in Washington, estimated that a million jobs had been lost because of the trade pact. In addition, the report said, “NAFTA has contributed to downward pressure on U.S. wages and growth in U.S. income inequality,” largely by hurting non-college educated workers more than others.40
But Russell Green, a fellow in international economics at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, says NAFTA created winners and losers in various industries but that the net impact on U.S. jobs has been less significant than critics say. “It really ends up being pretty close to zero,” he says, “less than 15,000 jobs a year.”
However, the AFL-CIO’s Lee says the pact hurt the United States by creating the trade deficit between the two countries. “Within 10 months, our small trade surplus [with Mexico] turned into a deficit,” she says, “and then it turned into a large deficit.”
Indeed, the U.S. trade balance with Mexico went from a surplus of $1.7 billion in 1993 to a deficit of $74.8 billion in 2007, according to U.S. government figures.41 In 2015, the deficit fell to $60.7 billion.42
Still, a Congressional Research Service study concluded, NAFTA’s impact on the U.S. economy was difficult to measure because many factors have affected the economic relationship between the two countries, including the devaluation of the Mexican peso in the 1990s, which made Mexican exports less expensive. Mexico also had begun lowering trade barriers before the pact was signed.43
NAFTA’s supporters say viewing the trade deal as a U.S.-versus-Mexico contest fails to recognize that it has created shared business enterprises that benefit both countries.
“We can point to particular incidences of plants closing and going to Mexico, but so much of the production that happens in the United States is able to happen here because of Mexico,” says Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York City. Parts and products move back and forth across the border to be used in manufacturing plants and other facilities in each country, she explains.
“For every import that comes in from Mexico, on average 40 percent of that product was made in the United States,” O’Neil says. “If we didn’t have a free-trade agreement with Mexico, many of the manufacturing jobs that we have in the United States wouldn’t be here at all.”
A 2014 study of the trans-border metropolitan area between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, found that the region enjoys advantages in several industries, particularly audio-visual and medical equipment manufacturing. The combination of San Diego’s high-tech research and development capability and Tijuana’s lower-cost manufacturing has given these industries a leg up in global competition, the study concluded.44
“Being a border region is why we have these comparative advantages,” says Melissa Floca, interim director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California-San Diego, which conducted the study with Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research institute in Tijuana. “When we talk about trade, San Diego and Tijuana in a lot of ways function as a single metropolis, and that’s what gives them their advantage.”
One of starkest dividing lines in the debate over immigration in the United States is the question of whether undocumented immigrants pose a disproportionate criminal threat or are a largely peaceful, hard-working population. Views on this question heavily color perceptions of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said when announcing his candidacy in June 2015. “The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”45
Americans on both sides of the ideological spectrum have objected strongly to this characterization. Jason L. Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York City, wrote that “numerous studies going back more than a century have shown that immigrants — regardless of nationality or legal status — are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or to be incarcerated.”46
Analysts who believe immigrants pose a disproportionate threat to public safety cite a 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that found that noncitizens made up 27 percent more of the federal prison population in 2001–2004, more than three times the percentage of the overall U.S. population represented by noncitizens.47
Other analysts say focusing on the federal prison population or federal convictions badly distorts the overall picture because federal prisoners represent only 10 percent of the U.S. prison population.48 The other 90 percent are in state or local facilities. In addition, analysts point out that immigration law violations are federal offenses — unlike homicide or theft, which are state offenses — so immigrants here illegally are likely to represent a larger proportion of federal inmates.
In 2015, the American Immigration Council, a Washington group that works to promote humane immigration policies, examined U.S. Census Bureau, FBI and other government statistics to assess the impact of immigration on crime. The results backed earlier studies. “Immigrants in general have lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates than the native-born [American] population,” says Walter Ewing, a senior researcher at the council and one of the study’s authors.
Ewing says statistics on the overall incarceration rate of undocumented immigrants are hard to obtain. So the study looked at imprisonment rates for younger, less-educated Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan men, who make up the bulk of the undocumented U.S. population. “Their incarceration rates were lower than native-born young men at the same education level,” Ewing says. In fact, the study found, the incarceration rate for Mexican-born men ages 18-39 was only 2.8 percent — less than a third of the rate for native-born men of the same ages.49
The American Immigration Council study also found that crime rates do not support the idea that more immigration, undocumented or not, increases crime. “Between 1990 and 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent and the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million,” the study said. Yet, “FBI data indicate that the violent crime rate declined 48 percent” during that period, and the property crime rate fell 41 percent.50
But advocates of a greater effort to block illegal immigration say the statistics don’t change the fact that some undocumented immigrants have committed horrendous crimes while in the country illegally. “Obviously, there are millions and millions of people whose only offense is to be here illegally, and they don’t go out and commit more crimes, but then you have a dangerous subset,” says FAIR’s Stein. “If criminal aliens weren’t going out and murdering people and kidnapping people and engaging in criminal behavior, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
Anti-immigrant groups frequently cite the highly publicized 2015 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco — allegedly by Francisco Sanchez, an unauthorized Mexican immigrant who had been deported five times.51 The death in Omaha, Neb., of Sarah Root is another high-profile case. She was killed this year when her car was hit by a pickup truck driven by Eswin Mejia, an unauthorized Honduran immigrant whose blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit. He was charged with vehicular homicide, but posted bail and fled.52
Ewing acknowledges the severity of such crimes. “They get so much attention because they’re tragic,” he says. But it is unfair to take them as representative of the criminality of the undocumented population, he says. “It would be like taking someone who shoots up a school and holding him up as an example of what white males have done to society,” he continues. “You can’t blame a group for the actions of individuals.”
However, other analysts say such crimes mean stricter policies are needed to block and remove undocumented immigrants. “Any crime that’s committed by somebody that should not be here in the first place is one too many,” says Moran, of the National Border Patrol Council.
But Vargas, of the U.S-Mexico Foundation, says the focus on crime provides a false picture of immigrants, particularly from Mexico.
“There is a huge population of Mexican origin here that has greatly contributed to the U.S.,” she says.
Go to top
For most of the U-S.-Mexico relationship, the United States has been the more powerful nation, one that Mexicans often felt unfairly threw its weight around.
“Poor Mexico — so far from God and so close to the United States,” said 19th-century Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, famously capturing this sentiment.53
But the relationship started out differently. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Mexico, known as “New Spain,” was the crown jewel of the far-flung Spanish empire, stretching from the California coast to present-day Central America. Rich in agricultural and mineral resources, it was the wealthiest and most powerful European colony in North America, dwarfing the English colonies that later became the United States.
Mexicans revolted against Spanish authority and gained independence in 1821.54 Beginning in 1836, however, Mexico lost territory to its northern neighbor in a succession of military and diplomatic conflicts that deeply affected the young nation.
The losses began with the successful war of independence by the Mexican province of Tejas, or Texas. Mexican leaders felt the region was being encouraged to join the United States, so they barred further U.S. emigration into the territory, triggering a revolt. Despite the Texas rebels’ infamous defeat at the Alamo, a former Franciscan mission near San Antonio, the rebels eventually won their independence in 1836. Texas remained an independent republic for a decade before joining the United States on Dec. 29, 1845.55
A year later, after an exchange of gunfire between Mexican and U.S. troops in the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. President James Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico. Polk believed in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which held that it was the U.S. destiny was to expand across North America to the Pacific Ocean. Opponents of the subsequent Mexican-American War, who included a young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, felt the excuse for the conflict had been trumped up to acquire territory, but the declaration narrowly passed Congress.56
The United States sent troops into Mexico, and an army led by Gen. Winfield Scott eventually occupied Mexico City.57 The war concluded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico was forced to recognize the loss of Texas and relinquish more than a third of its territory to the United States — land that would become California and much of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. In return, the United States paid Mexico $15 million for the territory and assumed $3 million in claims against Mexico by U.S. citizens.58
“For Mexico, it was a total disaster. Mexico had been the richest, most populated, most important European colony throughout the colonial era, and then here they were, totally defeated by the war,” says William Beezley, a history professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and author of several books on Mexican history. “It really took time for them to work themselves out of that disaster.”
The defeat left Mexico’s leaders with a deep “distrust of the United States,” Beezley says, and “a strong sense that it had been responsible for a national humiliation.”
The United States soon gained even more Mexican territory through the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna, desperate for money to combat insurrectionists, agreed to sell parts of present-day Arizona and New Mexico to the United States for $10 million, a purchase arranged by James Gadsden, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.59
The deal was unpopular in Mexico and furthered the country’s sense that its northern neighbor was exploitative, Beezley notes. That feeling, he says, persisted until the 1860s, when the United States helped Mexico overthrow the French, who had taken control of the country earlier in the decade.
Tensions between the United States and Mexico flared again in the early 20th century. In 1914, the United States briefly occupied Veracruz in retaliation for what it felt was the mistreatment of nine American sailors by Mexico.60 And in 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent 10,000 troops into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary leader who had attacked Columbus, N.M., killing 17 residents. The expedition withdrew 11 months later without capturing Villa.61
But relations between the two nations never again deteriorated into armed conflict. Instead, as the 20th century progressed, the United States increasingly turned to Mexican laborers in times of need.
In 1910, Mexicans revolted against President Diaz, whose 34-year rule had favored large landowners and big business interests. Although the revolution ended in 1920, sporadic violence continued for some years. During the conflict, an estimated 890,000 Mexican immigrants legally emigrated to the United States, although some later returned home.62
They were the first of what would be several waves of immigration from Mexico during the 20th century. Until the 1960s, says Beezley, “There was a constant need for labor in the Southwest and on the railroads and in the Pacific Northwest, so there wasn’t much of an effort to regulate Mexican labor. In fact, it was often recruited.”
For instance, during both world wars, America welcomed Mexican workers to fill jobs vacated by U.S. servicemen fighting abroad. That relatively hospitable attitude was illustrated by two major immigration laws passed in the 1920s: the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. Taken together, they limited the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and from Asia but imposed no quotas for Mexican workers.63 In fact, in 1924, when the U.S. Border Patrol was created, with 450 officers, most of the agents were stationed on the Canadian border to battle liquor smuggling, which was considered the biggest border problem.64
But as the Great Depression settled over the United States and unemployment rose, American attitudes changed. In the 1930s, federal, state and local officers rounded up Hispanics from workplaces and public areas in California and the Southwest, forcibly repatriating up to 2 million Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry. Since little effort was made to discriminate between legal and illegal immigrants, up to half of those expelled were U.S. citizens, according to some estimates.65
A pattern developed over the next few decades: The United States either welcomed or took a benign attitude toward Mexican immigrants in times of labor shortages or relative prosperity and a harder line when the workers were no longer needed.
When U.S. men enlisted during World War II, the United States and Mexico agreed on a temporary contract labor system, known as the Bracero Program, which ended up lasting until 1964. More than 4.5 million Mexicans eventually entered the United States as “braceros” (Spanish for laborers), mostly to work in agriculture.66 The low wages and substandard housing for the braceros sparked controversy and complaints from all sides that they were being mistreated and that they were depressing U.S. wages.67 But the program also provided an important source of income to families back in Mexico, further intertwining the two economies by establishing a pattern of remittances from the United States that remain important to many Mexican households.68
During the Bracero period, another backlash against Mexican immigration began in the 1950s. Although the braceros had entered the United States legally, other Mexicans also were illegally crossing the border for agricultural work. When U.S. servicemen returned after World War II, concern again grew that Mexican laborers were taking jobs and lowering wages. In 1954, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Wetback, in which teams of Border Patrol and immigration agents swept through Hispanic neighborhoods and workplaces looking for undocumented migrants.69
Some workers left voluntarily when the program was announced. Others — from 250,000 to more than 1 million — were forcibly shipped home.70 U.S. officials’ treatment of Mexican workers was sometimes harsh. In one case, at least 88 died from sunstroke after being rounded up and deported in 112-degree heat.71
U.S. concern about illegal immigration resurfaced during a recession in the early 1980s, when U.S. unemployment was above 10 percent. Apprehensions of deportable migrants skyrocketed — from 760,000 in 1980 to a record 1.7 million in 1986.72 As demands for immigration reform increased, Republican President Ronald Reagan proposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants who had arrived before 1982, coupled with a buildup in border security.73 However, Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act slowed but did not stop illegal immigration, which began rising again in 1990.74
In 1996, after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, Congress revisited immigration reform, adopting a major overhaul of U.S. immigration rules via the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It nearly doubled the size of the Border Patrol, provided $12 million for new border-control devices, such as motion sensors, made even minor offenses deportable crimes and stripped noncitizens of the right to judicial review of immigration decisions.75
In 2006 President George W. Bush signed legislation authorizing construction of 700 miles of reinforced fencing, stretching across Arizona’s southern border and portions of the California, New Mexico and Texas borders.76
Both Hillary Clinton and Obama, who had voted for the fencing law as senators in 2006, called for a review of it while running for president in 2008, saying the fence had created environmental, commercial and property-rights issues along the border.77
Since the 2007–09 recession, which put many Americans out of work, public concerns over illegal immigration have persisted. In 2013, following Obama’s re-election, hopes ran high among pro-immigrant groups that an immigration reform bill supported by Obama incorporating a route to citizenship might become law. A bipartisan reform bill passed the Senate but died in the House amid Republican opposition.78
Current frustration with illegal immigration has culminated in a 2016 Republican presidential campaign in which restricting immigration has become a central theme. The American Immigration Council’s Ewing says the campaign continues a pattern.
“The current spike in demonization of immigrants is occurring at a time when the U.S. labor market is not doing very well,” he says, “so all of a sudden, it’s a big deal. All of a sudden, they’re stealing jobs. Economics is always a big part of this.”
The nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which winds through both heavily populated urban areas and desolate rural regions, has long been a boon to drug smugglers. Even in the early 20th century, the then loosely guarded border was used to smuggle heroin and marijuana into the United States.79 But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Mexico became the major route for drug trafficking into the United States.
Analysts say the emergence of the Mexican drug trade resulted from a combination of factors. In the mid-1980s and early ’90s, a U.S. crackdown on Colombian drug cartels began to shift both drug production and trafficking into Mexico.80 And Mexican free-market reforms, including NAFTA, boosted some sectors of the Mexican economy but decimated others, creating a pool of jobless workers, some of whom turned to the drug trade.81
Mexican drug lords eventually created a multibillion-dollar drug trafficking industry, abetted by corrupt law enforcement, military and government officials in Mexico.82 Some members of the federal police and the Mexican army reportedly work for the cartels, and, in the past, corruption allegations have reached the highest levels of Mexican government.83
In 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón vowed to break the drug cartels’ power. He deployed thousands of military personnel in a major offensive against the nation’s drug lords. Working with the United States, Mexico eventually killed or captured 25 of Mexico’s top 37 drug lords.84
But Calderón’s drug war led to a dramatic rise in violence, with the cartels murdering local officials, police and military personnel in a wave of terror that included beheadings and public hangings. Homicides during Calderón’s six-year term reached 120,000, double the number of the previous administration.85
Despite Mexico’s drug war, analysts say drug production and smuggling continued to grow, now totaling $30 billion annually and employing up to half a million people. Mexico is a major supplier of heroin to the United States and the largest foreign supplier of methamphetamines and marijuana. More than 90 percent of the cocaine used by Americans passes through Mexico.86
Although Mexican drug gangs have extended their reach into the United States, their U.S. operations “are markedly less violent in the United States than in Mexico, despite their reported presence in multiple U.S. jurisdictions,” according to a Congressional Research Service study.87
Syracuse University’s Fernández de Castro, a former Mexican government official, says the drug war affects the United States and Mexico differently. “Drugs, for the U.S., are a public health problem,” he says. “For Mexicans, it’s about making sure our children can walk in the streets and play in the parks safely.”
Cross-border drug-related smuggling is not a one-way street, however. About 70 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico from 2009 to 2014 were traced to the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Mexico has strict gun-control laws, and drug gangs’ weapons usually are purchased in U.S. border states, the ATF indicated.88
“You have a problem here, and that problem is spilling into Mexico,” says Fernández de Castro. “It’s a huge business to smuggle guns into Mexico, especially assault weapons.”
Mexico and the United States are collaborating to reduce illegal arms flowing into Mexico, training border agents in both countries and granting some Mexican law enforcement officers access to the ATF’s “e-trace” online gun-tracking database. However, a 2016 GAO study said the effort has been poorly coordinated.89
Drug violence has fallen in Mexico since Peña Nieto took office in 2012, but some critics say progress has been slow. The nation’s murder rate is still high compared to the period before Calderón’s campaign and has risen again in the last year.90 The drug war remains one of several shared challenges faced by the United States and Mexico.
Go to top
In a meeting this summer in Ottawa, Canada, the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada jointly defended international cooperation in a variety of areas, including free trade and the environment, rejecting the sentiment of nationalist protectionism — the practice of shielding domestic industries from foreign competition — rising in the United States and abroad.91
Both Obama and Mexico’s Peña Nieto stressed their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would create a 12-nation Pacific free-trade zone that includes the United States, Mexico and Canada.92 “We all believe that in an integrated global economy the goal is not for us to shut ourselves off from the world, but rather to work together to raise standards for the world, for workers and for the environment,” Obama said.93
Peña Nieto said the TPP presents an opportunity to reaffirm the economic integration between the three countries while extending the benefits of lower trade barriers “to other regions of the world, specifically towards Asia.”94
Neither of the U.S. presidential candidates supports the TPP, although Clinton supported it while serving as Obama’s secretary of State.
The North American leaders attending the so-called Three Amigos summit also pledged to help combat climate change by raising energy efficiency standards, generating half their countries’ power through clean energy by 2025 and reducing by 40-45 percent North American emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.95
The three also vowed to increase cooperation in their countries. “Isolationism is not the solution,” said Peña Nieto. “In contrast with what happens in other corners …, the countries in North America, we have decided to be closer, to work as a team and to complement each” other.96
Meanwhile, in the U.S. presidential campaign, the two major political parties are espousing sharply opposing views of illegal immigration and security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican Trump says he’ll not only build a border wall but he’ll get Mexico to pay for it. If Mexico refuses, he vows to impound up to $24 billion in remittances being sent home by Mexican workers in the United States, increase visa fees for Mexicans and, if necessary, raise trade tariffs with Mexico and cut foreign aid.97
Trump also vows to triple the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, deport all undocumented immigrants arrested for a crime, no matter how minor; and increase penalties for overstaying a visa. He also wants to end “birthright citizenship,” the constitutional right enshrined in the 14th Amendment that confers citizenship on anyone born in the United States, regardless of their parents’ citizenship status.98
Trump recently has said he was open to “softening” his position on deportation, and on Aug. 31 he made a surprise visit to Mexico City to meet with President Peña Nieto, hours before a scheduled speech on immigration in Phoenix, Ariz.99
Clinton forcibly rejected Trump’s approach to Mexico and immigration in her acceptance speech at her party’s convention in Philadelphia in July. “We will not build a wall,” she said. “Instead we will build an economy where everyone who wants a good job can get one.”100 She also has promised to introduce an immigration reform plan that will provide a path to citizenship for those living here without authorization.101
Clinton’s campaign website says she will focus on detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants “who pose a violent threat to public safety,” while treating others humanely. The campaign also says Clinton will make it easier for legal immigrants to become citizens by waiving fees and increasing educational efforts to help people understand the naturalization process.102
In June, a scathing report examining Mexico’s drug war concluded that Mexican government forces — as well as the drug cartels — have committed “crimes against humanity,” which violate international law.103
The report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York-based nonprofit that investigates human rights abuses, strongly criticized Mexico’s approach to battling the drug gangs, noting that innocent civilians have been killed or tortured or have simply disappeared while in government custody.104
“Successive Mexican governments have almost completely failed to ensure accountability for atrocities carried out by federal and state actors,” the report stated. “Political obstruction — beginning with government denial of the extent and nature of the problem — is the overwhelming reason for this failure.”105
Peña Nieto has been working to address some of the problems identified in the report. He implemented a system of judicial reforms and has introduced legislation aimed at halting the torture and disappearance of individuals in criminal proceedings.106
|Mexican soldiers hold the alleged leader of the Zetas drug cartel after his arrest on March 4, 2015. The United States has been helping Mexico battle the transnational drug trade through a joint effort known as the Merida Initiative. The United States, which has appropriated $2.3 billion for the initiative since it began in 2008, has been training and equipping Mexican forces as part of the program. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Manuel Velasquez)|
The United States has been working to help Mexico battle the transnational drug trade by improving its law enforcement and judicial procedures through a joint effort known as the Merida Initiative. The United States, which has appropriated $2.3 billion for the initiative since it began in 2008, has been training and equipping Mexican forces as part of the program.107
The two neighbors also collaborate in a variety of areas, ranging from high-level planning to on-the-ground law enforcement. Few Americans realize the degree to which “there are U.S. agents in Mexico working with their counterparts, and there are Mexican agents in the U.S. working with their U.S. counterparts,” says the Wilson Center’s Selee.
At least seven Mexican drug organizations operate in the United States, the largest being the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment report. The cartels principally serve as wholesalers, the DEA said, using U.S. gangs to distribute drugs locally.108
But Mexican cartels operating in the United States maintain a low profile, avoiding confrontations with other gangs or U.S. law enforcement, according to the DEA. Some are even relocating their American operations from urban areas to suburban or rural locales. “Traffickers … feel they can better conceal their operations in an area where law enforcement does not expect to find large trafficking organizations operating or are not accustomed to dealing with such organizations,” the report stated.109
The DEA expects Mexican cartels to continue to dominate U.S. drug distribution. “There are no other organizations at this time with the infrastructure and power to challenge Mexican [cartels] for control of the U.S. drug market,” the report concluded.110
Mexican criminal justice reforms represent “the most profound transformation our country has seen in more than 100 years,” María de los Ángeles Fromow, the Mexican official in charge of implementing the changes, said in announcing them this summer.111
The reforms are intended to bring a new level of openness and fairness to a legal system that often has been criticized as archaic and unjust, relying on forced confessions and giving defendants little chance to present their case. The new rules will include the right of cross-examination and rely more on evidence.
But many observers doubt the system will change quickly, given Mexico’s tradition of corruption in government and law enforcement, which remains “a cancer in Mexican society,” says Syracuse University’s Fernández de Castro.
He notes the Peña Nieto administration has opened up Mexico’s oil and telecommunications industries to greater competition and has pressed other reforms, such as in education. But taking on entrenched forces is difficult, he says, as illustrated by the teachers unions in Oaxaca, which are striking to protest educational reforms.
“This is the last remains of an old system in which the union bosses were very important, and they were able to create a very corrupt system in which they even handed their jobs to their children,” says Fernández de Castro. “Now they’re defending this because it’s the only thing they have left.”
However, he adds, the Peña Nieto administration has been far less active and successful at reforming systemic corruption than it has been with economic reform. Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, have been accused of conflict-of-interest relationships with wealthy businessmen who were government contractors or considering vying for such contracts. An investigation cleared the couple of charges with regard to a mansion in Mexico City, but questions raised in August by the media and opposition parties about luxury properties in Miami Beach have not yet been investigated.112 Several Mexican presidents and senior officials have been caught up in corruption scandals in the past.113
“This is something that really annoys most Mexicans because it doesn’t represent the new Mexico, the vibrant Mexico, that we are building,” Fernández de Castro says, “and it’s very concerning that now that we have democracy that we still have these problems.”
Go to top
Analysts generally agree the tenor of U.S.-Mexico relations in the next few years will depend on who is elected president of the United States. If Clinton becomes president, cooperation on a range of issues — including the drug war — will continue, many analysts say.
“If Trump becomes president, we might go through a very rocky time,” says Syracuse University’s Fernández de Castro. “It will be a time for Mexico to look for other partners.”
But FAIR’s Stein says cracking down on illegal immigration could benefit Mexico in the long run because illegal immigration has functioned for a long time as a release valve for Mexico, allowing it to avoid facing domestic problems. “If you build a wall on that border, if you really cap immigration levels, you could bring about political and economic reform” in Mexico, he says.
Rice University’s Payan, however, says statistics indicate “the immigration problem is solving itself by attrition. There aren’t that many coming in anymore. There’s a constant deportation of undocumented workers, and many of them are also choosing to leave.”
Beezley, the University of Arizona historian, says he thinks the United States eventually will realize it does not need even the existing border fence. “We might as well tear down the fence. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t do anything,” he says. “I think it will eventually come down and, symbolically, when it does, that will dramatically improve relations between the two countries.”
Vargas, of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, believes opposition to Trump’s rhetoric could stir the U.S. Hispanic community into political action. “For the first time, Mexicans in the U.S. have something that truly unites us,” she says. “It also creates an important desire … to become citizens to exercise the rights they deserve as people who have contributed to the U.S. economy for decades.
“When we look back 10 years from now, I think the effects are actually going to be positive in terms of empowering the Mexican and Latino communities,” she continues.
Floca, of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies, doesn’t believe nationalist political sentiment can overcome forces tying the two nations together, because the forces are “backed up by extremely strong cultural ties and business relationships that involve the livelihood of so many people,” she says. “We are following a trajectory of increasing social and economic integration between the two countries, and I think we’ll see that continue.”
Faced with more serious global problems, such as international terror, the Wilson Center’s Selee thinks the negative view of Mexico held by some Americans likely will fade.
“In 10 years,” he says, “we’re going to have a much better appreciation of having two such peaceful and cooperative neighbors in Mexico and Canada.”
Go to top
Should the U.S. build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border?
|ProDan Stein President, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Written for CQ Researcher, September 2016National governments have certain basic responsibilities to their citizenry, and one of them is securing their borders. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, building a wall is the best way to do that.Donald J. Trump’s call for a border wall reflects a widely shared sentiment that the nation must be willing to do what is appropriate and necessary to end the daily disrespect of our border and sovereignty — whether by smugglers, brutal drug cartels, rogue elements of the Mexican army or those entering illegally.FAIR has studied the border over the years. High-traffic areas where most illegal crossings occur tend to be near major entry points and highways heading north. The goal of fences and other physical barriers already in use is to help channel and manage foot and vehicular traffic to ensure those wanting to cross the border do so only at valid ports of entry.Judging by recent events, we are only a few years away from the heightened national security concerns we see in Europe and the Middle East. We know that double fencing and strategic physical barriers — which are already in place in a few areas along our border — will have to be expanded as appropriate.How long should the wall be? As long as it needs to be to get the job done. Can it work in isolation without a balanced interior and integrated border-enforcement support structure? No, it cannot.In 2009, Congress charged the Obama administration with building strategic fencing to stop illegal immigration. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security came up with an unproven high-tech Strategic Border Initiative. It failed and wasted over a billion dollars of taxpayer money.Trump wants to get the job done. A wall is an essential part of a national enforcement strategy that includes interior enforcement anchored by the robust prosecution of laws barring the hiring of undocumented immigrants. It also includes effective state-federal partnerships in the security of documents and cooperative enforcement programs. This means restoring America’s border-enforcement agencies to their proper role in enforcing immigration law.Most of all, it requires a commitment to the enlarged view of the American national interest in secure borders and the rule of law. That’s a stark change from where we’ve been since 2009.||ConAli Noorani Executive Director, National Immigration Forum. Written for CQ Researcher, September 2016When it comes to national security and border enforcement, the United States needs serious solutions. A wall along the entire southern U.S. border with Mexico is neither serious nor viable.Such a wall not only would fail to address our national security needs, it also would pose significant concerns for the residents of our border communities and unnecessarily damage our relationship with Mexico, one of our closest allies and most important business partners.The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the safest regions in the country. Research has shown that because of this fact, the overwhelming majority of border-community residents oppose the construction of a wall, citing its significant cost to taxpayers, damaging environmental and cultural impact and the imposition it would pose on private-property owners along the border.If the wall were built at the same average cost at which border fencing has been completed so far, its construction would cost taxpayers at least $10 billion. And the actual cost likely would be higher, thanks to topography that makes a fence or wall impractical.The environmental and cultural concerns associated with building a wall through wilderness areas and on protected land — concerns raised when border fencing disturbed Native American burial sites and bisected ancestral lands, thus disrupting native ceremonial routes of passage — underscore the logistical challenges associated with building a wall.And a significant portion of the land along the southern border is privately owned. The federal government already has spent more than $15 million on lawsuits with property owners who did not wish to sell their land to construct the current border fence. The construction of a wall would only add to these costs while ignoring the wishes of private landowners.A serious border-enforcement solution would be based on data, and the data show that we need investment at ports of entry. According to the Department of Justice, that’s where the majority of drugs are smuggled. Besides stemming this illicit trade, improved ports of entry also would facilitate trade with Mexico, our third-largest trading partner.Building a wall along the southern U.S. border is an inappropriate response to those who are rightly concerned about our national security. Smart border management can promote our national security while encouraging trade and controlling the movement of people.|
Go to top
|1820s–1910||Mexico becomes independent but loses territory to the U.S.|
|1821||After a bloody war of independence, Mexico splits from Spain and eventually establishes a republic.|
|1836||Mexican territory of Tejas (Texas) fights a successful war for independence.|
|1846||United States goes to war with Mexico. Mexico ends up surrendering a huge tract of land to the United States, including California and much of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.|
|1910||Mexican Revolution overthrows the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Diaz, beginning a period of violent instability that slowly ends after a new constitution is adopted in 1917.|
|1920s–Early 1990s||U.S. policy shifts between welcoming and discouraging Mexican immigrant labor, while concerns grow about drugs crossing the border.|
|1924||Newly created U.S. Border Patrol focuses mostly on stopping bootleggers along the Canadian border.|
|1942||During World War II labor shortage, United States welcomes Mexican guest workers through the Bracero Program, which continues until 1964. Millions of other Mexican farm workers enter the U.S. illegally.|
|1954||President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorizes Operation Wetback, in which up to 1 million undocumented Mexican migrants are deported.|
|Mid-1980s-Early 1990s||Drug smuggling shifts to Mexico after U.S. crackdown on Colombian cartel trafficking through South Florida.|
|1993–2008||Landmark trade pact encourages cooperation between the two countries, but concerns about national security, illegal immigration and drug trafficking lead to heightened border security.|
|1993||Mexico, the U.S. and Canada sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminating tariffs. Pact goes into effect on Jan. 1, 1994.|
|1998||President Bill Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo agree to work together to combat illegal drug trafficking.|
|2000||Election of Mexican President Vicente Fox ushers in a new era of democracy. Apprehensions of illegal border crossers peak at 1.6 million a year.|
|2001||Terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon trigger demands for greater border security.|
|2004||Congress authorizes 10,000 more Border Patrol agents by 2010.|
|2006||President George W. Bush signs legislation to build 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.|
|2008||Violence between drug cartels soars in Mexico, with more than 4,000 deaths in 18 months.|
|2010–Present||Despite continued cooperation on many issues, U.S.-Mexico tensions over illegal immigration grow, as illegal crossings continue to decline and deportations rise.|
|2010||Arizona passes a law allowing police to demand that individuals produce documents to show they are in the country legally, straining U.S.-Mexico relations.|
|2013||Immigration reform bill that would have provided a route to citizenship for many of the nation’s 11.3 million undocumented immigrants passes the Senate but is blocked by Republicans in the House.|
|2015||Declaring his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump describes Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists” and promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.|
|2016||At a summit in Ottawa, the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican leaders pledge continued cooperation on the environment and free trade…. After signaling he might amend his position on Mexican immigration, Trump made a surprise visit to Mexico on Aug. 31 to meet with President Peña Nieto, hours before a scheduled speech on immigration in Phoenix, Ariz.|
Go to top
Border Residents Oppose a Wall
“People are just trying to … deal with each other face-to-face.”
For many Americans the U.S.-Mexico border may be a dividing line between two countries, but for thousands of people who live on either side, it’s mostly a hindrance in their work commutes or visits to family or friends.
Although Americans’ debate about the border focuses largely on illegal immigration, roughly half a million people cross the U.S.-Mexico border legally every day, according to government tallies.1 In 2015, some 25 million Americans and 17 million Mexicans stayed at least one night in the other’s country.
Sister cities that sit across the border from one another, such as Tijuana and San Diego, often function largely as single urban centers: Families have members in each country, and businesses maintain cross-border facilities.
“We have 150,000 legal border crossings in each direction every day, and that’s because people live and work and go out and shop on each side of the border,” says Melissa Floca, interim director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “You have 10 percent of the population in both cities whose lives are entirely binational because they’re in both countries every day. I think that’s something that people who live [away from] the border don’t understand.”
The U.S.-Mexico border includes 46 different points where residents from the two countries can cross legally, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees border traffic and security. The crossings are organized into 25 official “ports of entry.”
Floca and other experts note that the stepped-up security at ports of entry into the United States, instituted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, has significantly increased the hassle of crossing the border. Residents with cross-border commutes in metropolitan areas such as San Diego-Tijuana or El Paso-Juarez regularly struggle with wait times of an hour or more.2
“They might take an hour today or three hours tomorrow, so you have to plan for three hours,” says Floca. “It’s so volatile, and it affects both personal and commercial crossings.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has promised to build a wall along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border to crack down on illegal immigrants. But a strong majority of border residents — 86 percent of Mexicans and 72 percent of Americans — oppose the wall, according to a poll of 1,427 people in 14 border cities conducted for Cronkite News, Univision News and the Dallas Morning News. 3
Respondents also said both the U.S. and Mexican governments were ignoring their needs.4 “One of the most difficult issues for the border is that much of the policy is made in Mexico [City] and Washington, D.C.,” says Floca, “which is just about as far away as you can get from the border.”
American political rhetoric about the U.S.-Mexico border, which emphasizes division, also largely ignores how much the two sides of the border are linked culturally and physically, says Jeff Banister, an associate research professor at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, a research institution in Tucson that studies border culture. For instance, the two sides share an ecosystem that researchers say has been injured by 653 miles of security fencing erected by the United States in recent years.5
“People have been doing wildlife studies in the area,” Banister says. They are finding that the fence is “affecting pronghorn sheep migration, the big cats, water flow and others things.”
Trump’s proposed wall, he says, would be even more disruptive, particularly since much of the remaining 1,300 miles of border not protected by the current fence are in remote, nearly inaccessible mountainous and desert areas where construction would be particularly difficult and destructive. “You’re going to have to build roads,” he says. “You’re going to have trucks coming in.”
Even some border-state politicians who back Trump on other policies favor a different approach in dealing with Mexico. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has focused on building a closer relationship with Sonora, the Mexican state south of Arizona. At a cross-border summit with Sonora Gov. Claudia Pavlovich in June, Ducey noted that Arizona’s trade with Mexico has grown by $1 billion in the past 12 months.6
The economic partnership between Arizona and Sonora is only one of many cross-border relationships. The U.S. State Department lists a range of binational agencies and groups cooperating on environmental stewardship, public health, infrastructure development and other areas of shared concern.7
“In the midst of this big political show — the way the border is used for political purposes — you have all these things happening in which people are just trying to get by and deal with each other face-to-face,” says Banister.
— Reed Karaim
 “Border Crossing/Entry Data: Query Detailed Statistics,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/jgm4hhc.
 Earl Anthony Wayne, “Mexico and the United States: Let’s Build Prosperity and Security,” Wilson Center Mexico Institute, July 20, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/go7asyl.
 Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. (A port of entry can allow for entry on foot, by car or evenon a train or boat.); Alana Semuels, “Crossing the Mexican-American Border, Every Day,” The Atlantic, Jan. 25, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/jd8vkyp.
 Russell Contreras, “Poll: US-Mexico border residents feel ignored, oppose wall,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 18, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/jhy2ed9.
 Melissa Gaskill, “The Environmental Impact of the U.S.-Mexico Border Wall,” Newsweek, Feb. 14, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/j43tzcm.
 Howard Fischer, “Sonora governor pursues ‘mega-region’ with Arizona,” Arizona Capitol Times, June 27, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/jlca9u6.
 “U.S. Relations with Mexico,” Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State, July 12, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/63hhvza.
Go to top
Americans’ View of Mexico at Odds With Reality
Manufacturing is strong, but corruption and crime bedevil some areas.
Today’s Mexico is not the Mexico most Americans still imagine. Nearly two-thirds of Americans see Mexico as dangerous and unstable, according to a June poll, and a third see it as undeveloped, while only 16 percent think of it as having a modern economy.9
Yet Mexico has the world’s 15th-largest economy and is ranked by the World Bank as an “upper middle income” country. The fastest-growing segment of the population is the 47 percent who are considered middle class, which means they can devote nearly half their household budget to discretionary goods and services rather than basic living expenses.10
Mexico has the strongest manufacturing sector in Latin America and ranks fourth globally in automobile exports, trailing only Japan, South Korea and Germany.11 Its diversified economy has allowed it to continue growing while other emerging nations, including Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, have suffered with the decline in oil and commodity prices.12
Mexican companies have a significant and growing presence in the United States. Grupo Bimbo, the largest bakery company in the world, owns well-known American brands Sarah Lee, Entenmann’s and even Thomas’ English muffins.13 Grupo LALA, Mexico’s largest dairy company, has been acquiring U.S. dairies and expanding operations across the United States.14
“Mexico’s a much more modern country than I think most Americans perceive,” says Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York City-based think tank. “There’s a strong middle class, strong citizen movements to tackle corruption, very sophisticated industries.”
But many Mexicans still have not seen significant benefits from the country’s growth, she adds. The share of the Mexican populace that lived in poverty in 2014, estimated at 46.2 percent in 2014, was roughly the same as the nation’s middle class.15
Some analysts say the free-trade policies that have helped Mexico’s industrial sector and middle classes grow, most significantly over the last three decades, also have contributed to the poverty that the country still faces.
But the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other free-trade policies have produced winners and losers. When trade with the United States opened up under NAFTA, small Mexican farmers could not compete with heavily mechanized American agriculture. Mexico’s corn farmers, in particular, were pushed out of business.
“What the [free-trade policies] did was introduce a very quick shift in the economic model without any means for people to protect themselves,” says Jeff Banister, an associate research professor at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center in Tucson, a research institute devoted to U.S.-Mexico relations. “The state was very supportive of rural people for a long time, and then it was just as if the whole thing was yanked out from under them in one fell swoop with the opening of Mexico’s market.”
Mexico also has one of the world’s largest disparities between the wealthy and the poor.16 Carlos Slim, whose company América Móvil dominates Latin American telecommunications, was named the world’s richest man by Forbes magazine in 2014. He slid to fourth in 2016, but his net worth was still $50 billion, according to Forbes. 17
Americans’ perception of Mexico as dangerous is more warranted than their view of its poverty. Violent crime, especially murders and kidnappings by drug cartels, is more prevalent than in the United States, although lower than that of Mexico’s Central American neighbors. The homicide rate of 14 murders per 100,000 people is nearly three times the U.S. rate of 5 per 100,000, although it is down from its height during Mexico’s drug war in the previous decade.18
Corruption still plagues Mexico’s political system, often with tragic consequences, as illustrated by the killing in 2014 of 43 male college students near the southwestern town of Iguala. Evidence had implicated Iguala’s mayor, his wife and the local police in the killings and raised the possibility that federal law enforcement officers also may have been involved.
The students were on their way to stage a protest against government education policy at an event to be presided over by the mayor’s wife. The mayor, reputed to have ties to the local drug cartel, reportedly directed that the students be stopped by any means necessary. Law enforcement officers appear to have stopped the bus and then turned the students over to local cartel members, who allegedly executed them.19
Yet, at the same time, recent elections at the national and gubernatorial levels have brought about peaceful transfers of power between the nation’s political parties, signs of the growing stability and strength of Mexico’s democratic process.
“It’s a democracy — sometimes complicated and messy,” says the Council on Foreign Relations’ O’Neil, “but a democratic country.”
Hi there! Click one of our representatives below and we will get back to you as soon as possible.