Mexicans reacted angrily to President George Bush's May 15 announcement that he would dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops to the southwest border, calling it an unfriendly gesture aimed more at shoring up the American leader's flagging popularity than at offering a real solution to the problem of illegal immigration (see BW Online, 05/16/06, "Huddled Masses, Tricky Politics"). In addition to aggravating anti-American sentiment in Mexico, a U.S. military presence along the 2,000-mile-long border could damage economic relations between the two countries and may affect the outcome of Mexico's July 2 presidential elections. "This will inflame a lot of anti-American feelings in Mexico," says Rafael Fernández de Castro, dean of the international affairs faculty at ITAM, a leading university in Mexico City.
The prospect of having thousands of armed troops stationed along the border is offensive to a country that has endured several U.S. invasions and the loss of half its territory over the past 150 years. Until now, Mexican government officials had been trying to stay out of the immigration debate in the U.S. Congress so that they would not be accused of interfering in American domestic policymaking.
But President Vicente Fox called Bush on May 14 over news reports that the U.S. was preparing to send troops to the border. In the 30-minute conversation, Bush assured Fox that National Guardsmen, not Army soldiers, would be used merely to provide temporary logistical and administrative support to U.S. Border Patrol agents. Says Fox's spokesman, Rubén Aguilar: "We must express our concern that these [border military] actions are not yet being accompanied by sufficient progress in the legislative process. It's clear that only if we have better and greater paths through which legal migration can occur will both countries be able to use their resources to guarantee the security of our shared border."
Concerns persist in Mexico that a buildup of National Guard forces could lead to skirmishes with migrants along the border. According to wire reports, Mexican Foreign Minister Ernesto Derbez said in a radio interview that if National Guardsmen do end up detaining migrants or if human rights abuses occur as a result, Mexico will respond by filing lawsuits through its consulates in the U.S. "It's always going to be risky to use troops to secure the border, especially if they include recent returnees from Iraq, who might have a different idea of what 'enemy' means," says Andrés Rozental, president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, a Mexico City policy think tank. "It might not be the best thing to have the border teeming with thousands of new enforcement people who might not understand what their proper role is."
Some Mexican observers understand that Bush's idea of border troops is aimed at winning support for immigration reform from U.S. conservatives, who believe enforcement should be a priority. Luis Rubio, director of the Center of Research for Development, a Mexico City think tank, notes that U.S. policymakers and opinion-shapers have long been divided into two camps: the "integrationists," who believe both countries have a lot to gain by continuing to knit together their two economies, and those who belong to the more pessimistic "Mexico cannot reform itself" crowd. The latter camp seems to be in ascendancy these days, Rubio says.
Mexicans' ire over Bush's plan could play into the hands of presidential aspirant Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The left-leaning, populist former mayor of Mexico City has signaled that if elected president he will adopt a more defensive stance in relation to the so-called Northern Goliath. For instance, he believes that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) shortchanges Mexico and that the pact should be renegotiated.
That's in sharp contrast to the policy line pursued by Fox and his government, which have worked to set aside decades of nationalist rhetoric to forge close relations and an unprecedented level of cooperation with Washington. If the furor over the border deployment doesn't die down quickly, that accommodating attitude could end up hurting Felipe Calderón, the candidate for Fox’s National Action Party and the current front-runner in the race. Calderón has said the troop deployment is a mistake, nothing that "those who think the solution to [stopping] migration is more fences, more sensors, and more agents are wrong."
Fox, who had hoped to end his six-year presidency on a high note with approval of a migration and temporary-worker program, hasn't given up hope yet. Mexico's President plans to visit Utah, Washington State, and California on May 23-26 to meet with governors, migrant groups, and companies such as Boeing (BA) and Microsoft (MSFT) as part of a continuing effort to improve relations, boost commerce, and increase cultural ties. Last year, Mexico and the U.S. logged $290 billion in bilateral trade -- up from $81.5 billion in 1993, before NAFTA took effect.
With that much commerce at stake, it's in both countries' interest to come up with some sort of migration agreement so they can rebuild some of the damaged bridges of communication -- rather than erect more barriers.