Editor’s Note: Michael Crow is president of Arizona State University. He was previously executive vice provost of Columbia University, where he also taught in the School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Our nation has a lot of serious problems. Living in a bad “neighborhood” is not one of them. But if we continue pretending it is – arguing over border walls, deporting good kids brought here as infants by their parents, and deploying our military along the southern border – we run the risk of making it so, or of at least failing to take full advantage of our geographic bounty.
The United States is blessed to have as neighbors two peaceful democracies that share our values. Canadians and Mexicans have contributed enormously to the American story since the earliest days of our republic, and remain steadfast friends despite having legitimate grounds to harbor the kind of irredentist resentment that stokes tension along many borders around the world. The United States acquired vast swaths of territory (my home of Arizona included) from Mexico in a war that a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln opposed as immoral, and yet for most of its history as a global power, the United States hasn’t needed to deploy its military to secure its southern border.
Over the past two decades, the North American Free Trade Agreement has created the world’s largest trading bloc, a vibrant, resource-rich economic zone that makes all of North America more competitive in the global economy. The integration of cross-border manufacturing within NAFTA has benefited our three countries, making us more competitive with low-cost producers like China.
Mexico in particular embraced dramatic change to join us in a North American community. Some of the changes were wrenching, especially for Mexican farmers and small businesses. Mexican government and society abandoned long-held anti-American grievances, to the point of amending the nation’s constitution to allow US companies access to Mexico’s oil riches, thus enhancing North American energy security.
But judging from American political discourse, you’d think trends in Mexico amount to a liability for the United States, instead of a huge asset. For example, White House chief of staff John Kelly recently told NPR that the “vast majority” of undocumented immigrants don’t speak English, are ill-educated, and are “not people who would easily assimilate into the United States.” Our current administration is breaking with its predecessors, especially its Republican predecessors, by threatening to abandon NAFTA (currently in the final stages of a renegotiation) and is perpetuating outdated, if not altogether fabricated, narratives about Mexico.
The truth is that NAFTA transformed Mexico in all the ways President Ronald Reagan had hoped it would when he first proposed a free trade agreement to an initially-wary Mexican government. The treaty, which ultimately went into effect in 1994, pried Mexico open to the outside world, helping to accelerate the nation’s democratization, and binding it ever closer to Washington on matters related to security. Corruption is a persistent problem that Mexico needs to address if it is to fulfill its potential, but NAFTA has helped expand the rule of law and brought stability to Mexico’s economy, allowing a middle class to flourish, and become avid consumers of US goods. Bilateral trade between our two countries exploded under NAFTA, from roughly $80 billion a year, to more than $500 billion. Mexico is now the second largest buyer of US exports, behind Canada. In our state of Arizona, which counts Mexico as its top trading partner, almost one in five jobs are supported by international trade, and these jobs pay a hefty premium compared to other jobs.
And yet, from candidate and now President Trump and others, we hear and see portrayals of Mexico as a crucible of criminal activity poised threateningly to the south. It’s easy for the rest of us to blame politicians for this lack of appreciation of what Mexico has become, but in some ways, all Americans are to blame for this failure. As the president of a university in a border state, I can see how outdated, misinformed stereotypes of Mexico that are commonplace in the news and in our popular culture represent a collective failure on our part as educators. In my role, I feel it’s especially important for institutions of higher learning to build a greater understanding between both countries, not only by increasing the two-way flows of students across the border, but also by partnering with Mexican universities to conduct joint research projects on shared challenges facing our societies.
The immediate danger is that Mexicans, who will vote for a new president in three months, might grow disenchanted with their decision to align themselves with the United States, feeling betrayed by an American government that insists on treating them not as partners and friends, but as villainous antagonists. Polling data released earlier this year showed that for the first time in a quarter-century, a majority of Mexicans hold negative views of the United States. Mexicans are increasingly susceptible to anti-American politicians seeking to sabotage the relationship. It would be a tragic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This isn’t to deny that problems exist, such as trafficking by drug cartels. But Washington’s political bickering and anti-immigrant rhetoric ultimately obscures the reality of the border itself. President Trump didn’t initiate it, but he has appropriated and popularized a fictitious narrative of a chaotic open border being crossed at will by swelling hordes of migrants, an alarming number of whom wish us harm. In fact, ever since the Clinton administration, the federal government has invested billions of dollars to beef up security along the border, which has become ever more difficult to cross. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 10 times more people entered the United States illegally in 2000 than in 2016. The numbers of unauthorized Mexicans living in the US has declined, reflecting a harder border, and changing demographics and economic conditions in Mexico. What’s more, study after study has found that cities near the border, and cities with higher concentrations of immigrants, tend to have lower crime rates than others.
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The vast majority of immigrants from Mexico, as is true of our DACA students on campus and has been true of immigrants from other parts of the world to this country for more than two centuries, work hard and make important contributions to our communities. They come from a neighbor that has become a great friend of the United States, and an important commercial partner.
We should be working hard to strengthen our North American partnership, not weaken it.