Around the Halls: Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s Visit to the United States

On May 19, Mexican President Felipe Calderon will begin a two-day visit to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. President Obama and address a joint meeting of Congress. Experts from around the halls of Brookings weigh in on the significance of a visit that comes during an important time in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Issues to be discussed include: the violent Mexican drug war raging close to the border, the ever present talk of increased economic cooperation, and the growing immigration controversy.

Looking Long Term in the U.S.-Mexico Relationship
Kevin Casas-Zamora, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin America Initiative

It is inevitable that President Calderon’s visit to the U.S. will be dominated by the security situation in Mexico and potential U.S. efforts in assisting Mexico to reassert control over its territory. The list of pending security assignments is well known by now: how to control the southbound tide of guns, how to disrupt the financial flows that grease the wheels of Mexican crime syndicates, and how to accelerate the disbursement of resources committed within the Merida Initiative. This kind of focus is pre-ordained, mostly because Calderon has staked his presidency and place in history on the struggle against organized crime. It is vital for him to have President Obama publicly show his support for the Mexican efforts and to acknowledge, once again, U.S. responsibility in the drug-trafficking maelstrom. While inevitable, the crowding out of other bilateral issues would be unfortunate. From a silly dispute about cross-border trucking that remains unresolved after more than one year, to the noxious effect of the newly-enacted rules against illegal immigrants in Arizona, there are plenty of issues that if left to fester could seriously poison the increasingly tight bonds between both countries. Letting that happen would be a disappointment. It would be great that both presidents showed willingness to broaden the scope of their talks. Whether we think the net balance of NAFTA has been positive or negative (I side with the positive opinion), we have to acknowledge the remarkable courage and vision that presided over its launch in 1994. One can only wish that Obama and Calderon will want to muster that same ability to think big and long term about this most crucial bilateral relationship.

Reducing Violence, Providing Opportunity, and Restoring Hope to Mexico
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin America Initiative

President Felipe Calderon visits Washington during difficult times in Mexico. Since he assumed office three years ago, drug-related violence has resulted in almost 23,000 deaths, with Ciudad Juarez hit especially badly. But violence is increasingly spreading and intensifying in new areas. Other signs of the escalation of violence include the targeting of Mexican, and perhaps even U.S. officials, by the drug gangs.

Nonetheless, the level of U.S.-Mexico cooperation is unprecedented. And the new restructuring of the joint Mexican-U.S. effort against the drug trafficking organizations, the Merida Initiative, is very much on the right track and gives reasons for hope that the struggle against the drug trafficking organizations will be successful. Instead of narrowly targeting the heads of drug trafficking organizations, the new approach, Beyond Merida, is far more multifaceted, placing critical importance on the building of effective civilian institutions, including the police, and addressing the socioeconomic needs of underprivileged segments of Mexico’s society—those that are susceptible to the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The U.S. and Mexican administrations deserve great credit for this expansion of Merida.

However, several imperative issues remain to be addressed: First, it is critical to bring violence levels down as quickly as possible. The Mexican government cannot be satisfied with statements like “violence is a sign of the policies’ effectiveness” or that “it affects mainly the criminals.” While it may be the drug traffickers killing each other, the bullets flying overhead eviscerate the society underneath. Second, President Calderon needs to build public trust in the new multifaceted approach, since much of the effort, such as improving the judiciary and police units, will require a generation or more. Otherwise, there will be pressures to abandon the difficult reforms underway when he leaves office, and perhaps even temptation to strike deals with the drug traffickers at the local level. Third, Mexico needs to undertake major, but difficult reforms of its political and economic system, and break up the monopolies that hamper job generation even when the country’s GDP is growing; this perpetuates the socioeconomic marginalization of large segments of the population. If hope can be restored to ordinary Mexicans that they can improve their conditions without leaving for the United States or participating in illegal activities, fighting organized crime too will become far easier.

North American Competitiveness Must Be Addressed
Diana Villiers Negroponte, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin America Initiative

President Calderon comes to Washington with three tasks:

1.) Gain President Obama’s endorsement for his “war on drugs.”
2.) Define what U.S. government’s commitment to “co-responsibility” in this war means in practice.
3.) Get the U.S. administration to join him in the discussion on climate change since the follow up to Copenhagen will be the Cancun conference next December – a significant meeting for an environmentally committed Mexican president.

But something is missing, namely a discussion on North American competitiveness. Addressing this theme in a mid-term election year is problematic. However, there are two ways to address this with practical, non-sensational programs:

First, let the leaders agree on a timetable to dismantle the barriers for Mexican truck drivers ferrying their cargo within the U.S. Under NAFTA, the U.S. government should allow them access. In pursuit of this, Mexican trucking companies have made significant strides in raising driver safety standards to U.S. standards. In fact, some Mexican trucking companies claim their safety standards are higher. A timetable spread over six years would see a gradual increase of Mexican drivers on U.S. highways and the opportunity to test their safety records. In exchange for this timetable, a commensurate reduction of Mexican tariffs on U.S. products, including wines, hair coloring and perfumes, would occur. These tariffs have hurt U.S. producers, particularly in California and productive areas in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district.

Second, both governments have favored the development of “smart borders”, where customs and immigration clearance would be undertaken at the factory and farm gate. With GPS and sealed containers with electronic protection devices, trucks and containers would cross the frontier through a “fast track.” These tracks exist, but truckers wait in line for hours before they can access the “fast lane,” a mile or more before the inspection post. We need private/public partnerships to construct longer “fast lanes” and expanded parking areas for those trucks that require secondary inspection. Both governments should be willing to explore the issuance of bonds to finance the expansion of our border crossings. With pre-clearance, sealed trucks and GPS monitoring, we can speed up the cross border flow of merchandise.

President Obama committed to doubling exports in five years. Currently, two-way trade valued at approximately $650 million crosses the U.S.-Mexico border each day. We can increase this flow through speeding up trans-border crossings. Allowing Mexican truck drivers to use U.S. roads may be interpreted as counter-productive, but more exports require more trucks and more truck drivers. Safety, reliable in-time delivery and good wages should result in a win-win for citizens on both sides of our border.

The Question of Immigration
Andrés Rozental, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

Arizona’s passage of SB 1070, and its impact on the Mexican community in Arizona, now brings immigration to the forefront of the discussions between United States and Mexico. President Calderon’s decision, since the beginning of his administration over three years ago, to keep silent on U.S. immigration reform and the domestic debate has now backfired with the growing anti-immigrant sentiment that is slowly substituting for the lack of federal action. During his visit to Washington next week, Calderon will address Congress, meet with President Obama and engage with the media. He must vigorously defend the basic rights and freedoms of his countrymen in the U.S.—independent of their immigration status—and reiterate his call for Mexicans to refrain from visiting Arizona. This means reducing the almost exclusive emphasis he has been placing on the Mexico-U.S. security agenda—the fight against organized crime and the war on drugs—and instead make immigration reform a priority. Undoubtedly the U.S. administration would prefer that Mexico continue to have a low profile on this issue, but Calderon’s image—already badly tarnished domestically—and his repeated commitment to protect Mexicans in the U.S., demand that Mexico speak loudly and clearly about the deleterious effects that Arizona’s actions are having on both its relationship with the state, as well as on the entire bilateral agenda. The unprecedented degree of cooperation and trust that has been established between the two countries on security and other issues could be threatened if the immigration question is left to fester with Obama choosing not to invest political capital on reform this year, and if Mexico continues to ignore the issue.

An Opportunity to Discuss Immigration
José Tessada, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Latin America Initiative

President Calderon’s visit to the United States will take place in the midst of heated discussions on immigration policy sparked by Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070). Although the timing is coincidental, it should be seen as an opportunity. Until now, the Mexican government has only expressed some concerns with the U.S. over how Mexican citizens in Arizona might be treated under this new legislation. However, more should be done. The Mexican government cannot ignore the prospects of immigration reform in the U.S. since it has serious ramifications for Mexico.

Specifically, increased enforcement against unauthorized immigrants and a reduction in the number of legal visas would have severe consequences for Mexicans in the U.S. It will be particularly difficult for unauthorized immigrants, but it will also affect families left behind and potential future migrants. Some simple numbers tell us how important migration to the United States is for Mexico. There are currently 11.4 million Mexican-born living in the U.S., which represents 30 percent of all foreign-born populations in the U.S. and is approximately 10 percent of Mexico’s population. Furthermore, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are 6.65 million Mexican-born unauthorized immigrants (62 percent of the total unauthorized immigrants) in the United States.

A reduction in current migration flows and/or a return of a significant number of Mexicans currently in the U.S. could put significant pressure on labor markets in Mexico. Moreover, tougher immigration rules would prevent Mexicans from seeking higher wages north of the border.

What can the Mexican government do? Above all, offer their cooperation and coordination to solve the problems that are influencing U.S. public opinion in the immigration issue, mostly violence along the border and drug trafficking. The Mexican government should also ask the U.S. to do its fair share in tackling these problems. Second, the Mexican government needs to show willingness to cooperate with the American government on the immigration issue. After all, Mexicans benefit from the opportunities offered to them by the U.S. The Mexican government should respond accordingly to ensure that immigration reform does not put an end to these opportunities.