NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Poor Mexico, the saying goes. So far from God, so close to the United States. Not so, says Andrew Selee in his new book “Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together”. The two countries, which share a 2,000-mile border and a sometimes bloody history, are united by complex, ever-deeper ties that contradict easy prejudice.
The nationalist rants of President Donald Trump and his supporters may attract the most attention. But bicultural businesses and movies, closer security cooperation and shared sports manias are better signposts to the future, writes Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Indeed, the decision by soccer’s world governing body FIFA to award the 2026 World Cup to the United States, Mexico and Canada in a joint bid – just days after the book’s publication – may say more about their common future than angry Trump tweets about the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Money drives the cross-border connection. Mexican companies, their names often unknown to the American public, are behind many goods and services used by consumers every day. Successful economic incursions include prepaid cellphones like TracFone and Straight Talk, subsidiaries of Mexico’s América Móvil. Grupo Bimbo, the world’s biggest breadmaker, peddles Thomas’ English Muffins and Sara Lee baked snacks. And Selee credits steel firm DeAcero with effectively saving the U.S. nail industry by acquiring the ailing Mid Continent Nail in 2012.
Mexican foreign direct investment in the United States quadrupled to $17 billion between 2005 and 2016, outstripping investment from all the oil-rich Gulf countries and Israel put together. Since NAFTA came into force in 1994, trade among its three signatories has quadrupled; at least 30 of the 50 U.S. states now depend on Mexico as one of their two principal export markets. Production processes, especially for cars, are deeply intertwined. Though some U.S. jobs disappeared under NAFTA, Mexican investment has saved and created others.
Remittances sent home by migrant workers, totaling at least $21 billion a year in the past decade, further tighten the connection. Selee cites the example of Demetrio Juárez, a Mexican-born restaurant owner in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Money earned by him and his father, working in New York kitchens, paid for the education of six siblings who now work in medicine, dentistry, law and accounting in Mexico. Some Silicon Valley venture capitalists, meanwhile, invest in startups south of the border in Guadalajara’s blossoming tech hub.
The book’s welcome perspective on migration tempers the Trump-touted notion of Mexicans as rapists and drug traffickers flooding the country and stealing American jobs. Since 2009, Selee writes, more Mexicans appear to have been leaving the United States than arriving. More immigrants today come from Asia, not Latin America. Most Mexicans who cross the border do so with legal visas. The rise of a broader middle class, fueled by NAFTA as well as by the decline in Mexico’s statist economic policies since the 1980s, is a major factor.
Mexico and its northern neighbor are increasingly linked via natural gas pipelines and the electricity grid, too. The liberalization of the country’s oil industry has enticed U.S. majors to invest in reinvigorating the country’s crude output.
In the cultural sphere, Mexicans Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro have won the Oscar for best director in four of the last five years, three times working with the same Mexican cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Soccer is growing ever more popular in the United States, due in part to the interest of its Latino population.
Nationalist posturing on both sides of the border is a threat to these achievements. Veteran Mexican leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runaway leader in opinion polls ahead of his country’s July 1 presidential election, has delighted crowds by warning in response to Trump’s rhetoric that his country will not be treated like a piñata.
If he wins office for a six-year term, AMLO, as he is widely known, has indicated he favors a more inward-looking economy, with an emphasis on national self-sufficiency and far less enthusiasm for energy liberalization. Between them, the two presidents could dampen a lot of what Selee celebrates. Yet by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around, both men will be out of office. Their two countries, meanwhile, will not have gone anywhere.
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