For Mexico, living with the United States in the Donald Trump era is like being in a relationship with an abusive spouse.
Trump is the mean drunk at the family dinner, throwing his weight around, hurling insults and threats, while everyone cringes and hopes that his rage will subside, knowing that nothing good will come from a confrontation.
Take, for example, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s reaction to Trump’s recent threat to close down the entire U.S./Mexico border: “We are going to help, to collaborate. We want to have a good relationship with the government of the United States. We are not going to argue about these issues.”
The United States needs Mexico, too.
Mexicans understand something many Americans do not: that our two countries are inextricably interdependent. Mexico counts on trade with the United States, as well as the remittances Mexican workers send home from their jobs—which surpassed oil exports as the largest single share of Mexican Gross Domestic Product. And the United States needs Mexico, too. Mexico is our third-largest trading partner. Halting the flow of goods across the border, even for a short time, will do significant economic damage to the U.S. economy.
How do you think all that ripe produce arrives in the grocery store all winter?
“First, you’d see prices rise incredibly fast. Then . . . we would see layoffs within a day or two,” Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, Arizona, told The Washington Post, when asked what would happen if Trump closed the border. “This is not going to help border security.”
The truth is, immigrants coming across our southern border to not pose any national security threat to the United States. On the contrary, U.S. industries—especially agriculture but also construction, food service, and hospitality—are heavily dependent on Mexican and Central American labor.
“They’re taking our jobs,” Trump has said of the undocumented immigrants who come across the U.S./Mexico border. “They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”
These claims are demonstrably false.
Undocumented immigrants also commit crimes at a lower rate than U.S. citizens. A 2015 study by researchers at University of California - Irvine concluded that less-educated, native-born men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-nine had an incarceration rate more than triple that of foreign-born Mexican men, and five times greater than foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men.
Drugs do flow into the United States from other countries—but they mostly arrive through legal ports of entry.
Multiple studies show that undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America have a net positive effect on the U.S. economy. “Undocumented immigrants are not displacing U.S.-born workers. Rather, they are filling jobs that few Americans are interested in pursuing,” notes a 2018 report by the bipartisan New American Economy research group.
After NAFTA, about two million Mexican farmers lost their land and livelihood. Many came North to seek work in the United States.
Because the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in this country are able-bodied adults who are working and having taxes withheld from their paychecks, and because they are ineligible for federal benefits, the report explains, they contribute to Medicare and Social Security, without ever drawing from those programs. Nor do undocumented immigrants’ use of schools or hospital services cause a net drain on public programs, compared to the significant boost they give to local economies where they work and spend money.
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So why is Trump stoking panic over illegal immigration and threatening to damage the U.S. economy by closing the border?
By pointing his finger at immigrants, Trump gives anxious, displaced U.S. workers—the “forgotten men and women of this country,” as he has called them—a scapegoat for their problems.
But the problems that afflict economically insecure Americans—especially the rural and small-town voters who helped elect Trump—are not caused by immigrants.
If Trump wanted to help the Rust Belt and the rural Midwest, he could address decades of policies that have accelerated the collapse of family farms and small businesses, and support sustainable, local economies.
Instead, for all his posturing about pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump’s renegotiated deal with Mexico and Canada continues to favor multinational corporations.
Since Trump took office, his tax-cut and deregulation policies have also helped multinational corporations, big banks, and the very rich, at the expense of family farmers and small-town businesses.
Likewise, if Trump wanted to address the flow of migrants to the United States from Central America, he could promote local economic development and freedom from corrupt, repressive rightwing governments, and the rise of violent gangs that have made life unbearable for people in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, sending them fleeing for their lives.
Instead, Trump is doing the opposite. Along with closing the border, he has announced he is cutting off support to the Central American countries that so many migrants have fled. He is even cutting support for anti-gang programs that could address the most immediate threat.
The same global economic forces are bearing down on people in other countries and on people in the United States, causing migrants to seek work up north and blue-collar and rural voters to lose their farms and factory jobs.
After NAFTA, about two million Mexican farmers lost their land and livelihood. Many came North to seek work in the United States. U.S. farmers, meanwhile, are suffering from the “get big or get out” regime exacerbated by NAFTA—low prices and ever-bigger factory farms—that have caused an epidemic of family farm bankruptcies across the Midwest.
In the Midwest, where dairy farmers hired Mexican workers to fill the labor void when they had to increase production and the size of their operations to survive, even people who voted for Trump appreciate the deep interdependent relationship they have with Mexican workers. A growing food-sovereignty movement is demanding policies that protect the land and local economies, so people in both countries can make a living and so we aren’t all subject a dirtier, uglier food system dominated by Big Ag.
With his fixation on the “threat” posed by migrant workers from Central America and Mexico, Trump sidesteps all of that. He pretends we are not all connected, and seeks to divide and distract us. Recognizing what he is doing is the first step toward ending Trump’s abusive relationship not just with Mexico but also with us, the citizens of the United States. The real threat to Trump’s power isn’t at the border but the ballot box.