/ Modified may 16, 2017 4:36 p.m.

How the Border Wall Cuts Across Mexico's Political Landscape

Some say a barrier could put pressure on Mexico's political class to make changes at home.

Peña Nieto supporters Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has low approval ratings following a series of scandals. The leading presidential candidate in Mexico's 2018 election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is critical of both Peña and U.S. President Donald Trump. (PHOTO: Lorne Matalon, Fronteras Desk)

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MEXICO CITY - Tightening of the U.S.-Mexican border is sending political and economic shock waves deep into Mexico. Some there say it may force the government to improve conditions at home so there's less motivation to head north.

Patriotism was on display as military drummers signaled a changing of the guard at the office of the Mexican president recently.

To no one's surprise, at least in Mexico City, Donald Trump's election has triggered a rise in Mexican nationalism. The ardent Mexican leftist and twice-defeated presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is surging in the polls. He's riding revulsion in Mexico about Trump’s stance on immigration and his push for an expanded border wall.

Trump has given Mexico’s left a political gift, said Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, a member of the Mexican Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

"I never dreamed in my lifetime of a U.S. president that would be afraid of Mexico, afraid of competition!" Romero Hicks said.

The foreign relations committee continues to promote an integrated North American economy. But Romero-Hicks said that's a challenge right now.

"In the U.S. there's notion that is not correct that we are a security threat. Building a wall is absurd."

Federico Estevez is a political scientist at Mexican university ITAM. He said the idea of an expanded wall — whether with bricks and mortar or cameras and drones — is prompting many in Mexico to demand their country finally reduce its economic dependence on the U.S.

"For too long Mexicans have coddled the illusion that if things were bad enough they could always go north for a new opportunity,” Estevez said. “If you put up the wall, well there's no better symbol that tells you, 'Nope, you're stuck.'"

Estevez added that Mexicans are focused like never before on their government's historical inability to create jobs. That’s a view shared by Esteban Illades, managing editor at current affairs magazine Nexos.

"For too long Mexicans have coddled the illusion that if things were bad enough they could always go north for a new opportunity. If you put up the wall, well there's no better symbol that tells you, 'Nope, you're stuck.'"

"Mexican politicians care less and less about job creation here in Mexico because they do know they can export Mexicans to the U.S. But that has changed," Illades said.

After peaking in 2000, the Pew Research Center said in 2015 that net migration to the U.S. from Mexico was zero. That remains the case today. As many Mexicans enter the U.S. as leave each year. But since Trump started talking about the border, some unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have returned home.

“President [Enrique] Peña Nieto said a few weeks ago that Mexicans were coming because they knew that Mexico was the land of opportunity,” Illades said.

But he is not buying what President Peña Nieto is selling.


Border Port walking nogales hero Walking passageway to a port of entry on the U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales. (PHOTO: AZPM Staff)

“There's no job creation, violence is at the levels we haven't seen since 2011,” Illades said. “They’re not coming back because they want to. They’re are coming back because they're scared or because they're being deported by Donald Trump."

And figures like leftist presidential candidate López Obrador are leveraging that fear. He recently told U.S. audiences that the wall won't stop "the flow of workers," only "make it more dangerous." He also calls an expanded wall a "criminal act."

"Donald Trump has permeated the Mexican political discourse," said Victor Hugo Michel, chief editor of El Financiero television, a channel devoted to the economy.

"You see that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he has positioned himself as the only candidate that would know how to react to Donald Trump,” Michel said, “and this is having a success because most Mexican voters want to see retaliation."

Though a leftist, López Obrador and Trump are fellow travelers in a sense. Both rail against their neighbor and both want change on the border.

Trump wants it effectively sealed. López Obrador wants the U.S. to reform immigration so that Mexicans can cross legally.

The only questions now are, “Whose vision of the border will become reality? And, “Might uncertainty on the border force the Mexican government to start substantive job creation at home?”

Fronteras Desk
This story is from the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of Southwestern public radio stations, including NPR 89.1. Read more from the Fronteras Desk.
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