The United States and Mexico have an awkward relationship. For those of you who don’t know, the U.S. violently seized much of its territory from our neighbors to the south in the mid-19th century. That’s the kind of thing that leads to hard feelings. Mexico has, to be sure, shot itself in the foot in all kinds of ways. Yet it’s fair to say that Yankee imperialism has had a powerful influence on Mexico’s evolution, and not always for the better. It is doubly awkward, then, that the United States now needs Mexico to come to its rescue.
Specifically, the United States needs Mexico’s help to deal with the ongoing child migrant crisis at our mutual border. President Obama is insisting that something be done. Congressional Republicans are doing the same. I would be shocked if something weren’t done in the relatively near future. My concern is that the something in question will do nothing to address the reason we’re facing a child migrant crisis. And Mexico is the only country big enough, rich enough, and close enough to the heart of this humanitarian catastrophe to make a real difference.
Thus far, Mexico has barely entered the conversation. Rather, the debate has centered on whether Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have been led to believe that the Obama administration will welcome unaccompanied Central American minors, or whether the violence in those countries is so extreme that it would be irresponsible to send them home. For Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans to make it to the United States at all, though, they must first cross Mexican territory. In an ideal world, Central Americans fleeing chaos at home could find refuge in Mexico—one of the world’s more prosperous countries, and one of the richest in Latin America. Indeed, in 2011 Mexico enacted a refugee law that is in many respects more generous than the laws on the books in the United States, though it’s not at all clear that this law bears any resemblance to what’s happening on the ground.
Some Central Americans would, of course, still want to make the trek to the United States even if Mexico offered them refuge, either to reunite with loved ones or to find more lucrative work. But that’s not really the issue at hand. Mexico, thankfully, is far safer and more stable than the countries to its south. If it is incapable of providing refuge to those truly in need, it would nevertheless be much better for the United States for migrants to be vetted on Mexican soil than in a chaotic scrum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The trouble is that getting to this point will require a level of trust and cooperation that the United States and Mexico have rarely achieved.
In theory, the U.S. and Mexico should be as thick as thieves. There are approximately 11.7 million Mexican-born immigrants currently residing in the United States. In case you’re keeping score, that is 29 percent of America’s entire immigrant population and 4 percent of its population overall. Roughly twice as many native-born Americans identify as being of Mexican origin, which means that there are about as many Mexican-Americans in the United States as there are African-Americans. Of course, this Mexicanization of America hasn’t been embraced by everyone, for reasons good and bad. And Mexico’s government has, in defending the rights of its migrants—including its many unauthorized migrants—taken an at times adversarial stance toward the United States.