By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
Less than 72 hours ago, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually with Mexican President Andrés López Manual Obrador (AMLO) to discuss cooperation on addressing migration from Central America and spurring development in southern Mexico. The two leaders will meet again next month during Harris’ first international trip to Mexico and Guatemala.
Mexico is a crucial partner to reduce the movement of Central Americans to the southern border. Last month, Mexico increased enforcement to manage the increase in arrivals. López Obrador deployed over 12,000 government officials to southern Mexico and announced a plan to establish new shelters for migrant children.
These enforcement efforts likely contributed to a leveling off of unauthorized border crossings of families in April, after increases in February and March. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has also made progress on streamlining processing for children traveling alone. The number of unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol custody has decreased by 88 percent since late March, when facilities became overcrowded and media outlets ramped up coverage.
While the political tension has subsided for the moment, there are certainly no easy solutions to challenges at the border. It will take time for the $310 million in U.S. aid for Central America that Harris unveiled last month to have an impact in rural communities, after last year’s back-to-back hurricanes and pandemic-exacerbated economic crisis.
To have an immediate impact, the Biden administration must also use other measures. I recently wrote a piece that first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News urging the Biden administration to raise the H-2B temporary guest visa cap by 64,000, and allocate all or most visas to Central Americans. These visas would support critical U.S. sectors and immediately impact the communities of tens of thousands of Central Americans.
On April 20, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would reserve 6,000 new H-2B visas for Central Americans this year, which is a start, but likely not enough to make a difference in border crossings.
The situation at the border also reveals Mexico’s own economic troubles. Over the past few months, there has been an uptick in apprehensions of Mexican men, who left due to the lack of economic opportunities at home. This spike shows the pressing need for the United States and Mexico to work together on economic issues.
In an recently published op-ed, I argued that ally shoring, the focus of a new U.S.-Mexico Foundation report, offers Biden a strategy to rebuild the U.S. economy with a neighboring country that shares its values through further integration of supply chains, sourcing and production.
The pandemic revealed the limitations of critical U.S. supply chains, and the administration could build up greater resilience through enhancing cross-border production, trade and innovation with Mexico.
Ramping up bilateral collaboration could further drive economic growth. The U.S. economy is experiencing economic resurgence, aiding Mexico’s economic recovery. Remittances to Mexico reached an all-time high in 2020 and have continued to break records during the first few months of 2021. Increased U.S. demand for goods —which will likely continue to go up in the next few months — has also led to a spike in Mexican exports.
Yet, ally shoring strategy faces several challenges in Mexico’s current political environment, including López Obrador’s uneven stance on private contracts and numerous attempts to reverse the country’s 2013 energy reform.
In April, Mexico’s Senate approved changes to the hydrocarbon legislation that give the Energy Secretariat (Sener) and the Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) the ability to rescind private sector permits due to “imminent danger to national security, energy security or the national economy.”
These hydrocarbon changes were previously passed by Mexico’s lower house in March and face litigation in district court.
The energy legislation could violate Mexico’s trade commitments under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which have already been a source of scrutiny. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has said she plans to raise concerns with Mexico during the annual USCMA review in coming weeks.
López Obrador’s coalition in Congress has kept busy ahead of June’s midterm elections. In late April, it passed a labor outsourcing reform, limiting subcontracting to specialized services.
On June 6, Mexicans will head to the polls to vote for 21,000 political offices, including 15 governorships and the entire lower house of Congress. This midterm election is largely seen as a referendum on López Obrador’s leadership over the past three years.
The Woodrow Wilson Mexico Institute’s 2021 Election Guide offers insightful takes on why these elections are so important, López Obrador’s National Regenreation Movement (Morena) party and the stakes for Mexico’s democracy.
ANTONIO GARZA is a U.S. lawyer who served as his country’s ambassador to Mexico between 2002 and 2009. In recognition of his work, in 2009, the Mexican government bestowed on him the Águila Azteca, the highest award granted to foreigners. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, Garza served as Texas’ secretary of state from January 1995 to November 1997 and was also chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. He is currently a lawyer specializing in cross-border issues at White & Case, which was recently named the most innovative firm in North America for 2020 by the Financial Times. He is also currently a director at both Kansas City Southern and MoneyGram.