Donald Trump's comments on illegal immigrants have ignited the latest firestorm to engulf the herd of candidates seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But by continuing to focus on illegal immigration the debate misses a much larger problem: the sad state of America's relationship with our neighbor to the south.
Two wars and instability in the mid-east, Russian aggression, and Chinese economic warfare have pushed U.S.-Mexican relations to the foreign policy back burner. David Shirk, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. summed it up well saying: "I think the challenge, the problem is that Mexico is actually quite important to the United States, but (President Barack) Obama is so embattled on so many fronts that he hasn't been able to give Mexico the bandwidth that it deserves . . ."
U.S. — Mexican relations have been fraught with difficulty and conflict for centuries. President James K. Polk, out of a sense of Manifest Destiny fought the Mexican-American War which ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo establishing the Rio Grande as the border between U.S. and Mexico and giving the United States what is now the American southwest.
It's hard to tell whether or not Mexico still harbors a grudge against losing nearly one-third of its territory centuries ago, but the current state of relations between the two nations is hardly what one would expect given our close economic ties. That bond was strengthened by enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement during the Clinton Administration making the United States Mexico's top trading partner.
Census data shows that since 1980 Mexicans have been the largest immigrant group into the United States. From 1990-2010 more than 7.5 million immigrants, many illegal, have poured over the border into this country. Some have moved on, to Canada, Spain and even Guatemala, but most have stayed.
The scope of the problem is clear, but upon even casual reflection so too are the causes. The Mexican economy is in the dumpster and the nation is riddled by internal conflict between the government and drug cartels, and among the drug cartels themselves. Add in a healthy dose of government corruption and it is clear the Mexican state is dysfunctional leading many citizens to give up hope and move north in search of a better life.
Problems begin with the government itself. "Corruption and weakness in Mexico's judicial and police sectors have largely allowed the drug trade to flourish," concluded a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. And flourish it has; 90% of the illegal drugs entering the United States originate or arrive via Mexico. Mexico is the prime source of marijuana and methamphetamines sold in the U.S. This trade comes at a significant cost, as more than 60,000 Mexicans have died in domestic drug-related violence since 2006.
U.S. — Mexican relations hit a low point last year when the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto allowed U.S. Marine reservist Sgt. Andrew Tahmoressi to languish in a Mexican prison for 214 days after he inadvertently wandered over the border. The irony of Mexico holding one American who crossed the border while millions of Mexicans cross into the U.S. unfettered was not lost on many.
With its economy in shambles, corruption rampant and the drug trade pervasive immigration to the United States, legal and illegal, has continued at a brisk pace slowing only during the Great Recession when U.S. job opportunities also dried up. As the U.S. slowly recovers from that recession, the pace of immigration is also likely to accelerate.
All the while the American political establishment continues to fixate on the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Unless and until Mexico can get its own affairs in order immigrants will continue to stream north. Mexicans would be less likely to leave family and cultural ties behind to face an uncertain fate in the United States if they were safe, secure and had economic opportunities in their homeland.
Much of this, unfortunately, is outside the ability of the United States to fix. Massive corruption and political instability are matters which Mexico must address internally. But U.S. foreign policy must focus more intently on our southern neighbor to quash the drug trade and to foster a more robust Mexican economy. By so doing we will stop addressing symptoms and begin to cure the cause of the immigration problem.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)
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