Brownsville native Tony Garza, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, former Texas secretary of state, and former Cameron County judge, visited the Rio Grande Valley last week as part of an annual sendoff reception for college freshmen from the Valley headed to the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater. A Republican who cut his teeth in a solidly Democratic part of the state, Garza now finds himself at odds with Trump’s GOP. We caught up with Garza in Edinburg and talked about the presidents of the United States and Mexico, immigration, NAFTA, the domestic terror attack in El Paso, and the next generation of Texas voters.
Texas Monthly: How is AMLO [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] doing as president of Mexico?
Tony Garza: I think he has tapped into something very real in Mexico, and you saw that throughout the campaign—a very real concern about security, about corruption, about inequality, the disparity in wealth. These are very real things that he didn’t just tap into for political purposes. He’d been talking about them for eighteen years. So he is one of the things that people strive for in the political arena: authentic. He came in with this wave of momentum, and I think in one sense it was a very democratic moment. It was a reflection of what people wanted. In another sense, because Mexico’s transition is so long—from July to December—he started to assert himself in ways that I think perhaps troubled some in the business community or perhaps in the international community, if you looked at him moving away from positions that Mexico had taken on Venezuela and Cuba. His approaches at times have been a little impulsive.
TM: How is AMLO doing with respect to relations with the United States?
TG: Just take a step back to the last administration [of President Enrique Peña Nieto] and the way they managed the whole negotiation around USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the proposed replacement to NAFTA]. I think Mexico was the most disciplined and focused. There was the noise from day to day, the tweets, and Mexico stayed focused. Even after the election in July, for the last administration to integrate AMLO’s transition team into the negotiation and stay focused on it, I think they’ve been very good.
Conversely, I don’t think we’ve seen that consistency in the United States. President López Obrador seems very committed to having a healthy bilateral relationship. Consequently, if you look at the way Marcelo Ebrard, who’s his foreign minister, handled it, they’re very temperate in the face of the kind of statements or tweets that just a handful of years ago would have provoked a very nationalistic response. They’ve stayed very focused, very disciplined in their responses, realizing that they have certain objectives that they want to accomplish.
Now, internally, they’re starting to face some criticism for their willingness to undertake responsibilities as it relates to the United States on migration. They’re also starting to be criticized domestically for their initiatives in Central America. Creating jobs in Honduras, for example: Mexicans are saying, “Wait. We’ve got plenty of challenges here. What are you doing in Honduras?” So they’re doing things that I think are focused on managing the noise in the bilateral relationship that have come at some cost domestically. To me, that says that he’s very committed to this bilateral relationship. But I wonder if there is a reciprocal commitment or understanding in the United States to the efforts and the lengths that President López Obrador is going.
TM: You described their actions as very temperate, which makes what happened this week after the El Paso massacre very interesting. It was Mexico asserting itself and holding the U.S. responsible for the death of eight Mexican citizens, calling it an act of terrorism.
TG: President López Obrador’s statement was somewhat temperate. And then Marcello Ebrard was much more direct about looking for legal avenues to pursue with the United States, up to and including wanting to request extradition. So you saw kind of two tracks. You saw the statesman saying things that I think were appropriate about what had happened in El Paso, and then you saw the minister of foreign relations being kind of the lawyer for the country.
TM: Does it represent an evolution in the AMLO administration’s dialogue with the United States?
TG: I don’t know that I would say evolution, because what happened in El Paso is so offensive to the sensibilities. Not only of Mexicans but Latinos and really people all across the country. I do a lot of business, and I sit on a lot of boards. We’re always talking about culture, and ultimately culture is dictated by tone at the top. And when the tone at the top isn’t right, it contaminates. And there’s not a bone in my body that hasn’t found some of the statements Trump has made offensive. His use of race has been terribly cynical.
There are moments when we expect the tone at the top, our presidency, to reflect the better angels of our country. And I think that is what many Americans, Republican and Democrat alike, are asking themselves: Is there no moment or no event that won’t move this president to recognize that the Oval Office has a very special responsibility? And not just to do it in front of a teleprompter for three minutes, but to do it day in and day out consistently in a way that appeals to our better angels? That doesn’t mean that you can’t have some sharp differences in policy. It doesn’t mean that he can’t be talking about border security and border enforcement. But I do think there’s an appropriate tone to be discussing these issues. And I think that’s what many Americans and conservatives have found missing.
TM: One of the components of that tone is that immigration is at the forefront of issues for him.
TG: George W. Bush was trying to get comprehensive immigration reform. He was trying to get it in 2001, right before 9/11. He was talking about it in Texas in 1995. I remember going down to Monterrey with him when he was governor, and he was talking about immigration reform.
TM: The distinction, I think, is he was talking about it in terms of an economic issue, that we are going to have a labor shortage at some point. In Trump’s case, it’s a law enforcement issue—or an issue of fear or stoking fear.
TG: I think Bush, and probably to a lesser extent President Obama, saw immigration as an economic issue in terms of human capital, in terms of things as basic as getting Social Security back on sound economic footing, in terms of historically what immigration and movements of people into our country and society had meant. So I think they saw it broadly. I think this administration has seen it much more narrowly as a security/cultural issue. I think if this administration sat down and looked at it more broadly, at what the demographics have meant, they would have a recognition that this really isn’t about Mexico; it’s more broadly about Central America and others. It’s about the movement of people into our society to replenish what we’ve always replenished.
I don’t think this administration has the capacity to see things broadly and to really have a vision. And I think that’s one of the things that, whether you agree with President Obama’s approach or President Bush’s approach, they had a sense of—where will we be in ten years? How are we going to move ourselves toward being a country that still leads, that is still vibrant, that is constantly replenishing its human capital stock? And this administration, it’s almost like they’re very backward-looking. They’re very nostalgic about something that I’m not sure ever really existed.
TM: Is it nostalgia or cynicism? Is it the notion that they score politically with a narrow view?
TG: I think they do. Make America Great Again—what does that mean? The last seventy years have been some of the most extraordinary years in the history of any country, when you think about where we went immediately before World War II to where we are today. And when you look at where we’ve led on the security architecture for the world, in NATO; when you look at where we’ve led in terms of the economic and trade architecture, whether it be the WTO [World Trade Organization] or the trade agreements; whether you look at the ability of us to bring the Cold War to an end, the Berlin Wall coming down; the boom in terms of wealth, the movement out of poverty; the opportunity for people of all demographics to start moving into the workplace; and the opportunity for primary and secondary education. Yes, there’s still some real challenges. But America is an amazing and great country. And we did it based on a very outward- and forward-looking sort of vision that was genuinely embraced by both sides of the aisle.
So I don’t understand this nostalgia. We’ve always gone forward. Why is this administration so committed to looking backward?
TM: So the notion of viewing immigration as an economic issue versus a law enforcement issue…
TG: Don’t get me wrong. I want security. I want people coming into this country to contribute to this country. I feel as strongly as anybody else that we want to keep the lawless out. But I’m not willing to say, “That’s why everybody should stay out. That’s why we don’t want comprehensive immigration reform.”
To build walls and keep people out—that’s really more of a cultural thing. When you only allow for the immigration of Nordics and Western Europeans, basically you’re saying something besides what we’ve always said as a country. And if you look at this most recent discussion about immigration, these are legitimate asylum claims in some cases. If you don’t like our asylum laws, go to Congress. We still live in a democracy. And if Congress doesn’t want to change, then blame Congress. But don’t just look for ways that you’re not going to enforce existing laws. That’s lawlessness. That’s the irony of it.
We still have to be that country for people who want to immigrate here and really contribute. We have to find ways to do that, but right now there’s no conversation going on around that. And this is not just this administration. The Democratic party isn’t doing a particularly good job either. When you lock yourself into extremes, you know who gets swept out? You and me.
TM: What are the prospects for the USMCA?
TG: The negotiations are pretty much complete. Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has appointed a group, and they were in Mexico last week looking specifically at some of the labor enforcement provisions and specifically getting a sense of how committed Mexico was to that. I’ve gotten the impression from talking to a couple of members that they feel pretty good about that. If the speaker feels comfortable getting that to a vote, and the administration is committed to it, it’s still possible. I think it’s unlikely, but it’s still possible.
If it doesn’t get done this year, my concern would be twofold: One is the economy. We could go into next year essentially in a full-blown trade battle with China and no USMCA. There’s just too much uncertainty for an economy that I think is already starting to slow down. Two, I would like to see it done early next year, because if it’s not, the president may play games with it in terms of withdrawing [from NAFTA], trying to create more pressure on Speaker Pelosi, and then you get into that hole. When you’re making decisions about capital expenditures and additional investment, the risk associated with the uncertainty starts to impact your decisions in a very real way and slows down investment. And that’s not where you want to be.
TM: Does USMCA provide a potential solution for the immigration issue?
TG: It gives some more certainty in terms of investment in Mexico. But the flows of people to our border are not Mexicans. They’re Central Americans. And so it gives additional certainty to the reality that those [immigration] flows are not Mexicans, and maybe it gives Mexico a bit more ability to work with the United States on migration and doing the things that they’re hoping to do in Honduras in terms of job creation. There’s so much more that can be done jointly in Central America. We have far more resources that we can bring to the table to do things in Central America that Mexico simply doesn’t have.
TM: A Marshall Plan?
TG: Everyone throws that around—Marshall Plan. I’m not so sure it has to be sort of the scale of a Marshall Plan, but it has to be some very smart, targeted things. Maybe through OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] and through private investment; through extending energy grids into Central America; and rule of law initiatives.
TM: The idea is to inject more capital?
TG: It’s not just money. It’s expertise and the commitment to doing it for many years.
TM: Do you see a second term for Trump?
TG: You have to say that an incumbent has certain advantages. I think today I would say it’s likely, given the electoral makeup, but things change. I’m not so sure where we’ll be in a couple of weeks, once what happened in El Paso or Dayton has really sunk in. Will it be the news of two weeks ago, or will it still be kind of eating away at us as a country?
TM: Do you want a second term for President Trump?
TG: Not necessarily. This last election, I said I didn’t see him as possessing the sort of tone and temperament I’d like to see in a president. But I’ve never voted for a Democratic candidate for president; I don’t imagine I’ll start now.
TM: Do you see Texas going blue again?
TG: I don’t know if we’ll go blue again. Texas has always been pretty independent. I think you’re likely to see a pretty purple state before too long. I remember running [for office] in 1988 in South Texas. I was a young Republican, and people said, “You’re too young, and you’re too Republican.” I managed to pull it off in 1988. So I imagine there are some Democrats that are looking at parts of the state and being told, “You’re too young, and too Democratic to win.”
The next wave of Texas voter—millennial and post-millennial—are economic conservatives in the sense that they see capital as one of the avenues toward real opportunity. But, on many other issues, they’re kind of libertarian—meaning they have a strong sense of liberty and respect for the individual. I think what you’re going to see is a very independent and very empowered individual. I think it’s going to be a purple and definitely a center-right state. It’s gonna be a new wave of people that are very independent, and I think ultimately that’s healthy.
This piece was edited for space and clarity.