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Mexico's Priorities Under the Next US Administration

By Melissa Martínez Larrea

The view from the southern border is as grim as it gets. The wall, deportations, remittances, NAFTA ... the list of worries goes on, and this is only one country's reaction to the news that shook the world on Nov. 9. Regardless of why Donald Trump was elected and why "no one saw it coming," governments around the world are now having a hard time dealing with reality. Most strategies were based upon the assumption of a Hillary Clinton victory and the Democrats regaining control of the Senate.

In the past weeks, the Mexican government has scrambled to gather advice from old-school government officials, former ambassadors and trade negotiators, and so-called U.S. experts to deal with the future president of the United States and his team. Since the president-elect gave his infamous speech announcing his candidacy, Mexican leaders have shown a lukewarm response to the 21st century’s greatest threat to the relatively stable Mexico-U.S. bilateral relationship. The media's response to the Mexican government's behavior has not been kind. In August, when the president met with then-candidate Trump in Mexico City, for instance, he was accused of betraying the country.

There are two realms that worry people on both sides of the border: the social and the economic. Mexico's president has tasked the Secretariat of Foreign Relations to deal with the former and the Treasury with the latter. These actions, however, have been reactive rather than part of a forward-looking agenda. Mexico has reactivated programs that had been on the backburner for months to help its migrant community abroad, such as a migrant reintegration program for Mexicans returning from the United States (Somos Mexicanos: Aqui tienes las puertas abiertas). This was designed to address the change of migration flows, with more people moving from the U.S. to Mexico than from Mexico to the U.S., mostly due to Obama’s deportations. Its implementation date is yet to be determined, and the program has not been updated to address the present circumstances. On the economic side, not much has been said publicly, except that the country will continue supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that it is willing to modernize NAFTA.

The problem is that the Mexican government has not come up with fresh proposals to counter the president-elect's policies, nor has it signaled that it will do anything but give in to his plans. Besides the three questions I posed in my previous article (Is he really going to win? Will he really build the wall? Is he going to deport all Mexican undocumented immigrants?), there is an additional one on the minds of Mexicans today: Why is the Mexican government being so complacent without even putting up a fight? It seems as though the government is not in the mood to negotiate. Mexico needs to be more assertive in its fight to protect both its citizens in the United States and the economic development project it has invested in over two decades. Wishful thinking that the president-elect will not deliver on his campaign promises will not get the country anywhere. The election is over and the time to negotiate is now.

Based on his decisions so far, Mexico will continue to be the president-elect's piñata. One of the first signs was his designation of Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General. Sessions is one of Trump’s main advisers on immigration issues and the architect of an alarmingly anti-immigrant proposal that includes ending federal funding of sanctuary cities, criminalizing visa overstays, and opposing Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. To add to the Mexican government's woes, the president-elect also designated Wilbur Ross as his Secretary of Commerce. Ross has announced that renegotiating NAFTA will be at the top of his to-do list his first day on the job. This is still just a signal of Trump's intentions, as he is yet to designate a trade representative who would be responsible for executing these plans. Finally, the president-elect reached an agreement with Carrier, through a $7 million tax break, to retain 1,000 jobs in Indiana instead of off-shoring them to Nuevo León, Mexico (which is only about a third of the number of jobs that would have been created in Mexico).

Mexico should realize that these are no longer warning signs. Trump's actions are setting the course for the future of the Mexico-U.S. relationship. It is the state's responsibility to protect its national interests and its citizens abroad through a tougher response to Trump’s proposals. In order to do this, the country must first understand its position vis-à-vis the U.S. In the economic realm, Mexico must take time to analyze whether or not modernizing NAFTA is the best way forward and stand its ground before losing its bargaining chips. Regarding the possible return of migrants to Mexico, the government must prioritize reintegration through a more robust state policy that focuses on both social and economic support. This plan must start by gathering hard data to get to know who these migrants are and what skills they have acquired abroad. Mexico is already late in initiating these steps and the government’s actions so far do not seem to be framed within a broader strategic policy.

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Melissa Martínez Larrea is a consultant on migration and refugee issues. She was formerly an adviser for the Mexican Foreign Minister. She holds a Master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a B.A. in political science and international relations from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico. 

[Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde]

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