With 55 percent of Americans supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, President Obama and the Congress have been working to hash out a solution to immigration reform in recent weeks.
A less-discussed factor in the immigration debate, however, is newly elected Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Nieto has been careful to not interfere in U.S. domestic affairs, but expressed a desire “to contribute toward the accomplishment” of immigration reform during a November meeting with President Obama.
Since assuming office on December 1, Nieto has worked to maintain close relations between the two countries. For example, he invited Obama to Mexico in 2013. Although Mexico has a significant stake in immigration reform – 10 percent of the country’s residents live within U.S., so shores and remittances are an important consideration.
Nieto has been focusing on policy areas closer to home in the waning post-election honeymoon period. The Obama Administration has a valuable opening to strengthen ties with Mexico in areas beyond immigration in 2013, including in the continued struggle against organized crime, economic integration in Latin America, and filling the post-Chavez regional leadership void.
By reducing drug violence, Mexico can improve its international reputation and have more robust trade relations with its neighbors, including the United States. Nieto is looking to take a different angle on organized crime while still continuing some of the policies of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Both Mexico and the United States have continued to support the Bush-Calderón-era Mérida initiative, from which the U.S. funds military equipment used in the Drug War. Nieto’s rhetoric, however, has been focused on social services and economic development rather than security concerns.
Since November, Mexico has passed an education reform bill giving the government more power over unions in employment decisions and has also passed labor reform measures designed to improve the business climate and outlaw gender-based discrimination. The Nieto Administration was directly responsible for the former and supported the latter, and is eager to implement more policy changes in education and energy.
Yet despite a new sense of optimism that has accompanied the incoming administration, homicides in Mexico have risen in December and January. According to security expert Jorge Chabat, Peña Nieto “is sweeping violence under the rug in hopes that no one notices…it can be effective in the short term, until the violence becomes so obvious that you can’t change the subject.” Despite making progress in other domestic policy areas, Nieto must somehow find a way to curb violent crime. He must do this while forging public confidence in the returning Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which infamously bribed drug cartels and state monopolies until the party was gradually voted out of power in the 1990s. If Nieto cannot retain credibility in his own nation, he may not be the ally the Obama Administration is looking for.
Improvements in Mexico could pay political dividends for Mexico and the United States as well, particularly in the western hemisphere. Mexico spurred the recent creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Mesoamerica Integration and Development Project, and the Mexican Agency for International Cooperation and Development. With an improving state reputation since the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, Mexico has been stepping up its regional commitments. Latin American research analyst Cory Siskind even speculates Nieto is “well poised to fill the void of regional leadership arising from the impending departure of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.”
Nieto, who recently traveled to Chile and Uruguay for talks on Latin American cooperation, could become a regional leader the United States is willing to accept. Within the past term, Mexico finalized a free trade agreement with Central America — another step toward improving trade relations between the NAFTA countries and the rest of the hemisphere. Diplomatic and security accords that include more Latin American goodwill toward the United States could someday become a possibility.
Should Mexico ask of it, President Obama would be wise to buckle down on arms trafficking and money laundering across the southern border to improve local conditions. But because of the PRI’s history of corruption and Mexico’s struggle in reducing violent crime, Nieto must be perceived as responsible and able to satisfy demands for domestic improvements in order for Mexico to grow its regional role.
If Peña Nieto is genuine and adamant in carrying out Mexican institutional reform, and if President Obama is willing to lend continued support for some of Mexico’s initiatives, the United States may look increasingly to Mexico as a regional balancer in the coming decades. In addition to growing the economies of both the United States and Mexico, the President may now have an opening to promote U.S.-friendly Latin American integration. 2013 will be a telling year as to strength of future U.S.-Mexican relations.
Original Author: Chris Mills