Experts Weigh In on New Course of US-Mexico Relations

Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is throwing his support behind President Joe Biden’s immigration reforms, but the country’s recent clamp down on DEA investigations has put the U.S.-Mexico relationship on security matters in what one expert called a “deep freeze.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands during the commemoration of his second anniversary in office, at the National Palace in Mexico City, on December 1, 2020. (AP Photo / Marco Ugarte )

HOUSTON (CN) — Donald Trump’s departure offers the U.S. and Mexico a chance to reboot their diplomatic relations, yet American concerns about corruption in Mexico has emerged as a stumbling block to solidarity.

Mexico played a key role in Trump’s focus on stemming the flow of Central American immigrants to the Southwest border.

With Trump threatening to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican imports if the country did not crack down on immigrants, Mexico deployed its national guard to its southern border to detain people entering from Guatemala, and agreed to take in asylum seekers turned away from the United States under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as its “Remain In Mexico” program.

Mexico acceded to Trump’s demands despite its own goals for cutting down on immigration by taking on its root causes.

Shortly after taking office in December 2018, López Obrador said Mexico would spend $30 billion over five years to curb immigration from Central America in what he called a new Marshall Plan, referring to the U.S. program that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

The strategy is familiar to Biden. As Barack Obama’s vice president, he helped push a $750 million aid package for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through Congress in 2015. And he has pledged to get the aid flowing again after the Trump administration froze it.

Obrador started out on the wrong foot with Biden when he declined to congratulate him on winning the presidential election until Dec. 15 after counting of states’ Electoral College votes confirmed his victory, according to Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States.

Sarukhan spoke on a panel of experts Thursday in a discussion titled “A New Chapter In the U.S.-Mexico Relationship: What To Expect In 2021–2025” held by Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy.

Lopez Obrador won over voters on his way to the presidency by promising to crack down on government corruption in a country where officials are routinely outed as being in the pocket of drug cartels.

But his commitment to those reforms was called into question when Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office announced Jan. 14 it would bring no charges against the country’s former defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.

U.S. federal agents arrested Cienfuegos last October at Los Angeles International Airport on drug trafficking and money laundering charges arising from a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the general’s ties to a Mexican drug cartel.

But after López Obrador accused the DEA of fabricating the charges and his administration blasted U.S. authorities for not telling them about the investigation before Cienfuegos’ arrest and threatened to restrict the DEA’s operations in Mexico, the Justice Department dropped the charges and Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico.

“This is truly extraordinary,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international organized crime at the Brookings Institution said Thursday on the Rice University panel. “The DOJ is not in the habit of dropping charges against very high indicted officials or people suspected of playing very fundamental roles in organized crime on the basis of pressure from outside.”

The Mexican government further frayed bilateral relations when it publicly released the DEA’s case file on Cienfuegos. The Justice Department said the release of confidential info had violated the U.S.-Mexico Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance.

The case also led Mexican lawmakers, with the support of López Obrador, to pass a bill last month requiring foreign agents to share info on their investigations with the Mexican government, legislation clearly aimed at DEA agents.

Mexico’s actions have put the state of its cooperation with the U.S. on security issues “in a deep freeze,” Felbab-Brown said.

The panelists said they are also concerned López Obrador is giving too much power to Mexico’s military.

He replaced Mexico’s civilian federal police with a new National Guard that is part of the military, put the military in charge of numerous construction projects and even tapped them to lead the country’s coronavirus vaccination program.

“This is a tremendous risk because the military are adopting more and more functions that were previously in civil power…I believe that potentially it can be a tremendous problem for democracy,” said panelist Enrique Cardenas, chairman of Signal Vitales, a Mexican NGO.

Despite the challenges, the panelists said they believe Biden’s intimate knowledge of U.S.-Mexico relations, going back to his long tenure as a U.S. senator, make him particularly well suited to put the countries on friendly terms.

Biden sent a proposed bill to Congress on Wednesday which would offer a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a move López Obrador supports because roughly half of them are Mexican nationals.

Biden also signed an executive order Wednesday putting a 100-day moratorium on deportations and ending the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

But nothing has changed for the 60,000 people enrolled in the program. They are still in limbo, with many living in dangerous tent camps near the border.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. “We don’t know if they’re going to be able to access the asylum system from the safety of the United States or outside of detention.”

Corbett said his own and other immigrant aid groups have been meeting with local government officials in both El Paso  and its sister city across the border Ciudad Juarez, and faith-based shelter providers since Biden won the election, preparing to help asylum seekers.

“With the federal government’s collaboration because we are going to need to make sure we have PPE, to make sure we are able to create safe spaces, to make sure personnel and volunteers have access to vaccines, and make sure we mitigate the threat of the pandemic,” he said in a phone interview.

Ideally, Corbett said, the Biden administration will release immigrants to let them reunite with family in the U.S. and pursue their asylum claims from where they are living.

Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in Thursday’s panel discussion it is a fallacy the United States has an immigration problem.

“The U.S. has not had an immigration problem since at least 2007 when the number of undocumented immigrants and the number of apprehensions at the border peaked. And then it’s been falling and falling and falling all the way to this day,” he said.

Payan said the spikes in apprehensions at the border during the Trump administration were mostly people turning themselves in and asking for asylum. 

“People trying to breach the border is actually minimal,” he said.

The United States is an “aging nation” that needs immigrants to replenish it with young people who can contribute to the economy and tax base, Payan added.

Now that Mexico is no longer directing resources to the Trump administration’s efforts to deter immigration, advocates say they are hopeful it will follow Biden’s lead and focus instead on trying to humanely manage flows of immigrants.

“Hopefully with the Biden administration in place Mexico and the United States can write a new chapter in how we work together on significant issues,” Corbett said.

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