Evan Smith: You were the U.S. ambassador to Mexico for more than six years—
Tony Garza: Actually, only two ambassadors have ever stayed in the job longer. It was an extraordinary period of time. I found it very satisfying.
ES: How would you characterize the relationship of the two countries at the end of your service?
TG: The thing I’m most proud of is the tone. We had to deal with some difficult issues, and we managed to be more respectful and more mature—we embraced the notion of shared responsibility. I’d like to say that it was born out of friendship and history and culture, but the tone changed out of necessity. We recognized that we were dealing with transnational issues, so we needed transnational solutions. We had to pony up to the table and be more constructive about the way we talked to each other.
ES: How much of that was a result of the fact that the president of the United States during that time was from Texas?
TG: I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of having had George Bush as president. He had a personal appreciation and a keen instinct for all that is Mexico, and he gave me great latitude to be as proactive as I could be in developing the relationship. I will tell you, though, that as important as the personalities were, you can’t underestimate the importance of the times. Whenever a new officer arrived at the embassy, I would tell him, “What you do here has an urgency. It impacts not only this country but our home country immediately. You’ve not been posted to some sort of remote ship at sea. We’re a ship near the harbor.” We existed in a moment when we were talking about security issues, border issues, post-9/11 terrorist issues. If you took a step back and looked at the longer view of things, you recognized that everything you were doing was going to be relevant ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road. On the economic front, we truly appreciated the need to have a fluid and efficient border. There is a real market convergence—labor moving north, capital moving south—but there has yet to be a complete embrace of that reality at the political level.
ES: Explain that last part.
TG: If you looked at the United States today and you were honest about not only the evolving demographic but the role of the undocumented worker within our economic mainstream, you would have to say that our policy has not kept pace with the removal of obstacles for the efficient flow of labor into the marketplace—the efficient flow that is being driven by a legitimate market demand. Conversely, if you looked at Mexico, you’d say we need to remove obstacles to the efficient flow of capital into the marketplace, so we can have the sort of development that would minimize some of the pressures for immigration.
ES: In other words, create an economy that would give people an incentive to stay in Mexico.
TG: It’s not just that. I look at it broadly: within Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Create a region where you can have an efficient flow of labor to where it will best be utilized, and address comprehensive immigration reform from the standpoint of the application of human capital. With that said, you also have to look at the security dynamic, which I think has been the very real concern of most Americans in terms of immigration reform.
ES: The need for labor runs smack into concerns about security.
TG: Until you address border security, I don’t think you’re going to create an environment in the United States where comprehensive immigration reform is possible. You have to do them at the same time. The challenge is finding a moment when there’s sufficient political will in Washington.
ES: Glad you said that, because a couple summers ago we had a divisive debate over immigration reform in which the president found himself to the left of many members of his party—of your party—and nothing happened. You could argue that that was a failure of will. So what do we do? And what should our policy be?
TG: Listen, I’m very traditional in terms of my respect for the market. That defines me very much in the conservative camps. I do think [our policy] has to be market sensitive and market driven—it has to address the demand in our economy for skilled and unskilled labor. Some of the biggest proponents of immigration reform have been out in Silicon Valley, saying, “We need to be the country that draws the best and the brightest if we’re going to maintain our competitiveness.” At the other end of the spectrum, you have the construction-services industry saying, “Okay, if we’re going to continue to grow, we have needs too.” The next round of reforms should be a snapshot of demand that day, but there has to be some natural sort of trigger that allows for uptick as the economy is expanding.
ES: What do you do about the 12 million people who are in this country illegally? Some members of your party argued that all illegals should be shipped back to the countries they came from.
TG: It got to the point that, regardless of what criteria you put in place for the transition of that community into the system, many still characterized it as amnesty. There’s that old line in politics: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” As soon as our opponents said, “That’s amnesty,” we were losing. So we have to move away from that environment to one where cooler heads are saying, “How are we going to address this?” There are many ways, short of amnesty, that we could do it, including allowing them to apply for citizenship without sending them to the front of the line.
ES: How did you view the conduct of your fellow Republicans on the immigration issue?
TG: There are individuals I would