This week, President Obama is off to Mexico and Costa Rica for a three-day trip starting Thursday. A White House statement said that the trip is “is an important opportunity to reinforce the deep cultural, familial and economic ties that so many Americans share with Mexico and Central America.” Obama plans to meet with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to discuss economic and trade issues. His last visit to Mexico was in June, for the G-20 summit in Los Cabos.
The U.S. and Mexico are as tightly bound as siblings, and often just as dysfunctional. While both governments are concerned with immigration and drug violence, President Obama must forge a more positive, productive partnership. Mexico is enjoying remarkable economic growth, and Obama neglects our southern neighbor at his own peril.
Obama will arrive in Mexico with good and bad news. On the positive side, he can highlight the progress his administration has made towards overhauling our immigration system. The border is more secure than ever, and the Senate has unveiled a proposal that creates new pathways for legal immigration. On the negative side, Obama bears responsibility for his failure to reform U.S. gun laws. ThinkProgress reports that the expiration of the assault weapons ban has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans in cartel violence. Even worse, America’s demand for illegal drugs fuels the growth of these cartels.
However, Obama would be wise to recognize that relations with Mexico should not center on these issues alone. As president-elect, Peña Nieto wrote in The Washington Post that, “It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns. Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way.” He wants a deeper relationship, one that is defined by shared economic goals.
That’s the smart way forward. Since 2008, Mexico has seen steady economic growth, which has been a net benefit to the U.S. The U.S. exports more to Mexico than to China and Japan combined, and U.S./Mexico trade hit almost $500 billion in 2012. Obama should build on these ties to create greater economic integration. If he and Peña Nieto were to collaborate on ways of matching Mexico’s young labor force with American technology and training, it would be a recipe for a regional economic boom. Greater U.S. investment in Mexico will make the country safer, as the cartels generally leave multinational operations alone.
Politically, Obama cannot afford to take Mexico for granted. Consider that Mexico has been fully engaged with Cuba since the revolution in 1959 (which was launched from Mexico). And although the U.S. has not recognized Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro as successor to Hugo Chavez, Mexico recognized his election on April 19. So Mexico is not an ally that automatically falls in lockstep with American interests. Perhaps with more attention from the Obama administration, Peña Nieto could be persuaded to be more supportive of U.S. policies for the region.
True, there are legitimate reasons why Mexico has been viewed warily by past administrations. Mexico has historically been the largest source of our undocumented population. Border towns have long feared spillover violence from the drug cartels. But illegal immigration is at net zero, and the fears of violence on the U.S. side of the border have proved largely unfounded. Obama should take the lead in encouraging more communication and cooperation with Mexico. Already, Peña Nieto favors opening Mexico’s energy sector to private investment, and he may even allow foreign investment in its state oil company.
President Obama has the chance to turn a page in U.S./Mexico relations, and he should not miss it. It’s time for a foreign policy with Mexico based on its potential, not on its problems.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.