I admit to taking it personally last week when President Donald Trump announced that he was ordering the American military to fortify the border with Mexico. After all, I am someone with family on both sides of the border. By contrast, my Mexican cousins in the business world hardly seemed fazed by Trump’s move. That’s because a decade earlier, they had begun shifting their business contacts away from the United States and toward China and the Middle East.
Trump’s border threats reinforce Mexican distrust of American political motivations at precisely the moment when building trust has never been more possible and more desirable. While the United States continues to be Mexico’s largest trading partner, Mexicans have increasingly sought to engage the global economy beyond its northern neighbor. One cousin in Monterrey is as likely to have a meeting in Beijing as in St. Louis. In short, more Mexicans are beginning to look beyond the United States for Mexico’s economic vitality.
Over the past decade, China has expanded its trade and investments in Mexico and Latin America looking to fill the void left by American negligence and arrogance and a xenophobia that kicked into overdrive after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Trump’s attempts to poke Mexico in the eye play well with his base. But most Mexicans have long grown used to such slights, having heard about the history of American neocolonialism since grade school.
The latest salvo from Washington has resulted in a rare moment of unity among Mexican presidential candidates immersed in the early stages of the campaign season for the July 1 election. Perhaps even more extraordinary was their unanimous agreement with the highly unpopular Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in condemning Trump’s move. Peña Nieto gained a reputation as a Trump enabler, welcoming candidate Trump in his only foreign visit during the American elections in 2016. Trump’s refrain that he would build a wall and Mexico would “pay for it” frames the current border debate with Mexico. Peña Nieto responded to the call for increased military in a video stating that “nothing and no one stands above the dignity of Mexico.”
Self-determination has been the central aspect of Mexican national identity, and Trump’s rhetoric is only strengthening that impulse. Mexicans experienced defining invasions by United States and France in the nineteenth century. Porfirio Diaz’s two sins fueling the Mexican Revolution were declaring himself president for life and turning over Mexico’s bounty to foreign investors. To remedy the first sin, Mexican presidents now only serve one term. As to the second sin, the most visible effort to keep Mexico’s wealth has been the expropriation of the oil industry by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938. The government took control of oil assets from Dutch and American companies, later compensating them through treaties. Peña Nieto has now reopened Mexican oil and gas to foreign operations. But American border politics have strengthened opposition to opening the oil market, increasing support for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who’s currently the front runner in the Mexican presidential race, leans left of center, and has developed his own populist streak.
Mexican desire for dignity has defined personal and national relations with the United States for decades, so much of Trump’s rhetoric rings hollow. Take Trump’s threats over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has called the worst trade deal ever. Many Mexicans agree with that sentiment, since Mexico practically invented criticism of NAFTA before Trump raised it as a populist cause. The Zapatistas initiated their indigenous rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico on New Year’s Day 1993, the first anniversary of the start of NAFTA. Subcomandante Marcos, the nom de guerre of the man who predicted the adverse impact the treaty would have on local communities by ushering in the American market, initiated a revolt because of it.
Economic disparities resulting from NAFTA drove Mexican immigration into the United States in greater numbers than the absence of any wall. Conversely, dips in the American economy have resulted in a net migration into Mexico since 2009. Recent statistics peg current border crossings at a forty-year low. This is hardly the looming invasion of immigrants used to stoke fear of Mexican chaos by Americans.
Tragically, it did not have to be this way. The United States has long been a cultural and social influence in Mexico. My grandparents would take weekend trips to Eagle Pass and San Antonio to visit Frost Brothers and Joske’s. Many of my same cousins who now do business with China participated in yearlong high school exchange programs to live with families in Minnesota and Massachusetts. So many Mexican children attend English-language grade schools today that I struggle to find playmates for my boys to use their Spanish when we visit our family in Mexico.
The attacks on Mexican dignity and demonization of Mexican people could have a lasting impact on future generations. Texas retailers felt the impact most immediately. During the last Holy Week leading up to Easter, I noticed fewer Mexican license plates in the Houston Galleria Mall. Merchants in San Antonio, San Marcos, and McAllen also have felt the pinch.
Since 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol has undergone an unprecedented militarization in weapons technology and police tactics. Above and beyond economic pain, militarizing the border means real misery and death. Militarization of the border, while symbolically meaningful to some, is a death sentence to others. Much of the border is an unforgiving desert, and untold thousands of migrants have perished on the journey. Mexicans will continue to die without a single bullet fired from an American army rifle. Even so, Mexicans have been killed by the fully armed Border Patrol and their brethren at the Texas Department of Public Safety without the benefit of due process. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum telling federal prosecutors in the border states, “You are on the front lines of this battle.”
Over the weekend, Catholic bishops in Mexico penned an open letter emphasizing the importance of dignity in their opposition to the recent military escalation of the border. They stated that the border “is not a war zone.” They continued, “To the contrary, this zone has a calling to be a link and connector. The only possible future for our region is one built on bridges of trust and shared growth, not on walls of indignity and violence.”
The Mexican bishops’ letter reads like an economic plan as much as a moral imperative. Indeed, cooperation is presented as the only option, not as a choice. Trump’s call to increase the military presence on the border will only add to misery and death, while damaging economies on both sides of the border. Mexican politicians will denounce the move, which some Trump supporters will point to as proof of a policy “win.” In reality, the global economy will reorient itself away from the United States and we all stand to lose from this missed opportunity.
Raúl A. Ramos is an associate professor of history at the University of Houston