Dialogue Solid, but There’s Still Lots to Resolve

Photo: Max Böhme/Unsplash

By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

Since my last column, there’s been no shortage of activity in U.S.- Mexico relations.

Last week, the Joe Biden administration announced that it would lift U.S. land border restrictions on vaccinated travelers. After more than a year of “non-essential” travel restrictions, this was long-anticipated news on U.S.- Mexico relations for frustrated border communities and suffering businesses. According to a Baker Institute estimate, Texas counties alone lost $4.9 billion in total GDP in 2020. Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that the end of restrictions will coincide with a push to reactivate the Mexican economy along its industrial northern states.

After a third wave of the covid-19 pandemic in August, cases and hospitalizations are steadily dropping on both sides of the border. This week, Mexico City was among 20 states determined to be low-risk green on the country’s epidemiological stoplight map. On a cautionary note, while Mexico has received more vaccine shipments from the United States than any other Latin American country, setbacks in logistics distribution have left its 41 percent full vaccination rate behind Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador.

On immigration, the number of migrant crossings remains high, and the Biden administration has responded with a mix of policies and enforcement efforts.

Despite lifting land border restrictions, the Biden administration will continue to use Title 42 of the U.S. Public Health Code to rapidly expel potential asylum seekers back to Mexico or their countries of origin. Several weeks ago, a district judge found the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) expulsions of families under Title 42 unlawful, yet the appeals court ruled the administration could continue expulsions while the lawsuit proceeds.

Since September, the administration has used Title 42 to send thousands of Haitians back to Haiti, prompting criticism from a top State Department legal expert and the resignation of the special envoy to Haiti. As a growing number of Haitian and South American migrants arrive at the border, the State Department is reaching out to countries across the region to curb migration.

In the next month, the Biden administration is prepared to restart the Donald Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), after a district court ruled that the DHS improperly terminated the policy earlier this year. Under MPP, migrants and asylum seekers were returned back to Mexico to wait for their U.S. immigration cases to be resolved and many were subjected to kidnapping, sexual assault and other violent crimes. The administration is still negotiating re-implementation of that policy with Mexico.

On energy, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) sent Congress a proposed constitutional amendment to increase state control of electricity generation, undoing many of the changes instituted by the 2013 Energy Reform. Analysts believe that such a move would make energy more expensive and less reliable for consumers. And Texas senators and members of Congress have expressed concern in a letter that the proposal could violate key tenants of United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The Biden administration continues to strive to institutionalize and broaden the bilateral relationship. This week, Biden’s climate czar, John Kerry, met in southern Mexico with López Obrador to discuss the United States’ renewable energy transition and climate change commitments.

And on Oct. 8., the Biden and López Obrador administrations met again in Mexico City for the High-Level Security Dialogue, this time with the challenge of rebuilding binational security cooperation that had been severely damaged by a fallout last year.

After the meeting, the two governments announced the creation of the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities. The new framework will include priorities such as preventing substance abuse, tackling trans-border crime, improving investigations and curbing the flow of illegal arms from the United States to Mexico. It is intended to replace the Merida Initiative, which had provided Mexico with $3 billion in anti-drug and crime prevention financing since its launch in 2008.

While these discussions are a significant step forward for stalled binational security cooperation, it will likely be challenging for both governments to work out the specifics of the new framework and rebuild trust.

On the economy, Mexico’s GDP is projected to grow by a more moderate 2.7 percent next year, after an estimated GDP growth of over 6 percent in 2021. On a slightly more positive note, a recent Bloomberg piece argues that Mexico’s steady pace of growth could set it up for success similar to that of countries like Denmark. We’ll see.

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.

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