international analysis and commentary

US-Mexico relations: potential progress and stumbling blocks


The US-Mexico relationship is pivotal for both countries and complicated by domestic politics on both sides. Former US President Donald Trump bullied Mexico as part of his domestic political program and international policy. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) sought to placate Trump in exchange for the US staying out of Mexican domestic politics, but never seemed to do enough to avoid threats (e.g., tariffs unless Mexico did even more to support Trump’s efforts to halt undocumented migration) or unilateral action (e.g., the arrest of former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos). When Joe Biden won the presidential election, he set out to undue much of Trump’s policies and regain the trust and confidence of people and governments around the world.

Yet despite Biden’s goodwill and AMLO’s need for good relations with Mexico’s main trading partner, repairing the relationship is not guaranteed. In the US, President Biden is vehemently opposed by Republicans and must struggle to maintain unity in the Democratic Party. In Mexico, AMLO seeks to transform the country’s economy, polity and society and is concentrating power to force through changes in policies and dismantle institutional restraints on state power. In addition, Biden and AMLO often disagree on values (e.g., representative government versus majority rule), priorities (e.g., climate change versus national control over energy supplies), and process (e.g., political opposition as part of political life versus an effort to overthrow the government). This disconnect between national and personal views matters greatly for some issues around migration, crime, trade and investment, but has little impact on managing local border crossings, fighting corruption and addressing climate change. In addition, it is irrelevant to the impact of China on the US-Mexico relationship.

The Rio Grande river marks part of the US-Mexico border


Other issues periodically flare up but have proven to be manageable, including border crossings by land (Mexico is merely seeking to reduce the scope of what is considered non-essential travel), and recently COVID-19 (in an informal understanding in March, the US shared its supply of the AstraZeneca vaccination – not yet approved for use in the US – with Mexico and Mexico closed its southern border to non-essential travel). Fighting corruption and addressing climate change are dear to Biden personally but virtually ignored by AMLO, who prefers to believe that the ethical values of his team will win out and that Mexican petroleum is the key to Mexico’s future as a developed and sovereign nation. AMLO resents US attempts to consolidate democracy in Mexico by strengthening civil society organizations. Though the Biden administration disagrees on these issues, it is unlikely to prioritize them over the main issues in the relationship. China lurks in the background. US conservatives fear China’s slowly growing relationship with Mexico while naïve nationalists in Mexico see China as potentially displacing the US as a source of investment and as an export destination. Fortunately, neither Biden nor AMLO is focusing on China as a key factor in the bilateral relationship.


The bilateral issues that define the relationship

Migration – Undocumented flows to the US border, mainly from Central America but with renewed streams from Mexico, have reached their highest levels in more than a decade. The drivers of that increase are multiple (including pent-up demand under Trump’s restrictive policies) but Republicans and most of the US press have held Biden’s policies responsible. Meanwhile, Biden is under pressure from progressive Democrats to facilitate asylum seeking and regularization of undocumented entry even more.

Biden understands that cooperation with Mexico is key to managing the issue, but he wants cooperation to be willingly provided and to contribute to successfully addressing the issue rather than simply creating a narrative of US “control”. Hence, his administration seeks to demonstrate goodwill and an understanding of the importance of the root causes in the sending communities. AMLO desires to limit Mexico’s role as a transit country for undocumented migration and believes in addressing what he considers the root causes. Yet implementing policies in line with these goals is problematic for ideological reasons and domestic politics on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

The US moved quickly to suspend the Migration Protection Protocol program (MPP), which had returned asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court hearing and began accepting new applications on February 19th. The program was officially terminated on June 1st and the Biden administration is currently reviewing US asylum policy to broaden its applicability and provide fairer and faster resolution of cases. AMLO supports Biden’s offer of aid to Central America to address root causes, but considers his criticizing of governments for corruption, weak rule of law, violations of human rights and growing authoritarianism unacceptable meddling in domestic affairs. The two governments still disagree on what type of aid is needed and under what conditions.

Drugs, crime and security – Mexico continues to deteriorate in terms of violence and corruption by organized crime and citizen insecurity, but US private arsenals also increased during the pandemic and the illegal flow of weapons to Mexico remains a fundamental component of Mexico’s drug, crime and insecurity complex. Biden is institutionally and politically powerless to rein in the US private arsenal. The US complains about Mexican sources of fentanyl and heroin, as well as transshipment of Colombian cocaine, while Mexico points out that the US has accomplished little in the way of reducing demand. This complicated and deadly scenario simply cannot be resolved without fundamental changes to the way in which both sides approach the issue. AMLO has de facto withdrawn from efforts to have an impact, decriminalizing consumption at home while providing no aid to drug consumers and retreating from confronting the heavily armed organized crime.

Tension in the relationship over this issue escalated when Mexico adopted a law restricting the work of US intelligence agents in Mexico and proposed that the Merida agreement be revised to emphasize US funding of drug treatment programs in Mexico, rather than policing or intelligence. Mexico demands that higher-level Mexican officials in the bilateral collaborations be exempted from vetting, while the US wants to extradite high-level Mexican suspects indicted or arrested by the United States for drug trafficking, money laundering, and serious corruption, which Mexico rejected in the Cienfuegos case. Republicans want to designate Mexican drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations and decertify Mexico for failing to collaborate with US counter-narcotics efforts. Avoiding that path will be politically costly for Biden.

Labor, energy, investments and trade – The 2017 renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) broadened the scope of issues considered far beyond trade and created a tool for the US and Canada to contest Mexican labor practices that effectively lowered the cost of production in Mexico.

AMLO rejects the constraints on Mexico’s ability to favor state over private investment. A new law regarding the power sector was implemented and policies were adopted to turn back the energy reform which opened the sector to private investment. These policies worsen climate change as they prioritize utilizing Mexico’s heavy oil production, but also unilaterally alter the rules under which foreigners invest in Mexico. US investors asked the Mexican government to reconsider and demanded that the Biden administration raise the issue of potential violations of the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA). Other unilateral changes that challenge the USMCA framework include new Mexican legislation that raises barriers to imports of US agricultural products and certain contracts and labor practices that effectively lower the cost of labor in Mexico.


Moving forward       

Biden is a pragmatist who seeks common ground for cooperation. But the Republican opposition in Congress prioritizes the partisan advantage over accomplishments and the progressive wing of the President’s own party demands more than can be delivered. AMLO has been single-mindedly pursuing a total transformation of Mexico and his political opposition has been too incoherent and weak to force him to rein in that ill-conceived vision. Unless these countervailing pressures ease, the key challenges will continue to get worse, undermining the relationship for the future.