Every country has the sovereign right and duty to protect its borders and enforce its immigration laws and interests. The United States, arguably the most welcoming nation for immigrants at our scale in history, has almost four times as many foreign-born residents as the next country on the list today. To give an example: relative to total population, the U.S. has 16 times as many foreign-born residents as Mexico and 42 times as many in absolute numbers.
Controlling our borders is a must. That does not mean that a full-length wall makes sense, especially with an elusive budget in the billions. Beyond geopolitical, environmental, and humanitarian considerations – from a merely pragmatic standpoint – the cost-effectiveness of such a huge investment is in serious question.
Along the almost 2,000 miles of southern border, the U.S. already has close to 780 physical barriers set up in the most relevant crossing points of recent decades. The remaining boundary is essentially river, desert, and mountainous land, which is extremely difficult and expensive to build physical barriers on. The sharp decline in undocumented immigration in recent years is mainly a consequence of investments in technology and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Border Patrol.
Due to demographic, economic, and border enforcement reasons, more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here in the last 10 years, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. This fact, the record deportation numbers under President Barack Obama, and the nearly 40% of undocumented immigration attributable to visa overstays rarely came up in presidential debates and campaign speeches.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio), who worked for the CIA for nine years and is an expert on security issues, has indicated that building a wall “is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” It’s “a third-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” he added.
The current and foreseeable challenge to our southern border security mainly has to do with migration from Central America, and it would behoove us to continue to have Mexico’s full cooperation in order to address the issue properly. That is not bound to happen if we undermine the level of bilateral trust we have built over the past 30 years.
As for the overall migration policy, among many contributions, three recent reports are worth reading: “A New Migration Agenda Between the United States and Mexico” by Andrew Selee of the Wilson Center; “Shared Border, Shared Future: A blueprint to regulate U.S.-Mexico Labor Mobility” by the Center for Global Development; and a ProPublica interview with Alan Bersin in “Former Border Czar Gives Real Facts About Immigration.”
Mexican poet, essayist, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz alluded to profound fissures that divide our two societies. The U.S. and Mexico are at the end, “two distinct versions of Western civilization,” he wrote in 1978 in “Mexico and the United States.” One, a product of Reformation, the Enlightenment, and colonization; the other, of Counterreformation, neo-Thomism, conquest, and mestizaje. We seem to be faithful scions of Luther and Felipe II, with contrasting and irreconcilable values and perspectives in many dimensions.
All this, I would add, may qualify as hyperbole, but nevertheless it is evident to an extent in our contrasting political foundations and institutions. Mexico did not have the kind of foundational ethos, project, process, and narrative present in the U.S. (exceptional in the world, for that matter). The central debate and struggle in Mexico since the 18th century has been around the balance and exercise of power. The barebones of 300 years of colonial, civic, and political life lived on after independence from Spain. Forty-five shifts in the presidency in its first 30 years of independent life as a republic, starting in 1824 and leading to the loss of 57% of its territory to the U.S., followed eventually by 35 years of dictatorship and more than 70 years as a one-party regime, epitomize the dilemmas entailed. A current version of these dilemmas will likely be evident again in the presidential election in 2018.
And yet, our differences pale in comparison to all that brings us together, as we are inextricably bound by geography, history, demography, and social and economic links. An amalgam is in the works within our own country – Perhaps not in the traditional melting pot that assimilated previous waves of immigration, but in a salad bowl of sorts that Sam Huntington never imagined. Close to 60 million Hispanics in the U.S. include the largest diaspora in the world, the one of Mexican origin.
In view of our inescapable condition as neighbors and our deep and permanent bonds, we need to highlight our bipartisan appreciation for working together, expressed unequivocally by our political leadership over many years.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton celebrated the “closest, most candid, most comprehensive relationship in the long history of our two nations” and alluded to “America’s commitment for the common future we will make together … NAFTA has taught us that we have far more to gain by working together.”
President George W. Bush underscored in 2001 that “the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico … NAFTA stands as a model for the benefits that are possible when trade is open and free … Today, Mexico and the United States are bringing out the best in each other … We’re building a relationship that is unique in the world, a relationship of unprecedented closeness and cooperation.”
President Barack Obama added in 2016 that “Mexico is a critical partner and is critically important to our own well-being. We’re not just strategic and economic partners, we’re also neighbors, and we’re friends, and we’re family.”
The U.S.’s former ambassadors to Mexico from 1989 to 2015 have come out with a joint statement that strongly reinforces these ideas.
We are on the brink of destroying what we have so arduously and conscientiously built over recent years: mutual trust. We are about to go back to the times of unwinnable arguments about who is to blame for this or that, proven historically to be senseless and mutually damaging.
The tone and gist of our recent focus on Mexico has meaning beyond the obvious. The New York Times‘ David Brooks recently warned us about turning static and insular; about building walls and hunkering down; about being bound by nostalgia for utopias, and not by a common future. A lot more is at stake, as we buttress the meaning of our exceptional national identity and significance.
We cannot meet security and immigration challenges and nurture economic opportunities hunkering down. Texas, and San Antonio in particular, should urge national leadership in the executive and legislative branches as well as in business to revisit the stance displayed over recent weeks, in order to refine and deepen – not weaken – our strategic partnership with Mexico. We need to rekindle a spirit of respect and understanding – Lest we become distant neighbors again.