US Republican candidate Donald Trump’s announcement that he would build a wall on the border and force Mexico to pay for it sounded understandable alarm bells south of the border.
In February he estimated that the wall would cost $8 billion, a ‘tiny fraction of the money that we lose [sic] with Mexico on trade.’ He later implied that war could ensue if Mexico does not pay.
Nativist grumbling in primary season is not new. Patrick Buchanan ran in the 1990s on a platform which included anti-immigration.
It’s easy to dismiss Donald Trump as yet another futile dinosaur, but his success represents the desperate sense of vulnerability among those Americans who feel threatened by changes inside and outside their country.
But why is Mexico a threat exactly?
Mexico is now a partner of the US in ways which were unthinkable only 25 years ago. The two-way trade relationship is worth more than $500 billion per year, benefiting American exporters and consumers, and especially American border towns, which thrive on the commerce with locals on the Mexican side of the border.
And when 40% of the content of Mexico’s exports to the US was originally imported from the US, who wins and who loses in this trade relationship?
Walls close off legitimate opportunities and raise costs, and this wall would be as damaging to the US as to Mexico.
There are, by some estimates, more than 1 million Americans in Mexico. I am one of them. I work in an academic institution in Mexico City with educated professionals from Mexico and various foreign countries. Our experience shows that there are countless advantages of an open and cooperative relationship.
Perceptions of the US among Mexicans remain positive, notwithstanding the raucous stupidity coming from Mr. Trump. In 2014, 70% of Mexicans viewed Americans favourably, according to CIDE polling (Central Americans were viewed less favourably). The same percentage of the population (70%) was opposed to building walls in Mexico to protect against illegal migration from the south.
How long would that last if an American wall were built?
Many Mexicans are now returning home from the US, and the net flow of migrants is negative according to the Pew Research Center. Central Americans are taking their place, but even so, border apprehensions have plummeted by some 61% since 2005. Each border agent today takes about 20 migrants into custody per year, down from around 300 in the early 1990s.
Of course, Mexico has many problems of governance, security, and poverty. In certain hotspots, violent crime is high. Yet Mexico City’s murder rate (about 9 per 100,000) is below that of St Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, and 24 other American cities.
Moreover, violence in northern Mexico has not affected US border towns. In 2012, El Paso, Texas had a murder rate of 3 per 100,000, while over the border in Ciudad Juarez the rate was around 148. In the same year the rate in Chula Vista, California was 2.7 per 100,000, compared to nearby Tijuana, where it was 39 (in 2015).
Ironically, a wall risks impeding bona fide flows while doing nothing to ameliorate security risks. Drugs flow north, weapons and cash flow south. The 300-plus miles of fence that already exist and the intensive border checks have done nothing to stem those flows, but the movement of commerce remains too slow.
The US needs to draw smart lessons from the experience of our southern neighbor. Mexico is everything from safe, modern, educated and international, to unsafe, hidebound, parochial, and suspicious. Where it has become better, it is because it was open to the outside world.
America could learn something. It should face the pressures of globalization with neither walls nor wide-open borders, but with managed migration flows and smart border checks. It’s not playground-bully politics. It’s serious politics for a complex world.