Rafael Fernández de Castro, Harley Shaiken
"The U.S. and Mexico: Problems and Prospects"

February 12 , 2003

Rafael Fernández de Castro speaks on the absence of Mexico from the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the wake of September 11, and argues that a promising chance for new migration policy was lost.

The United States and Mexico: Two Nations Looking Towards the Future While Learning From the Past
Shannon Gleeson, Sociology

Wednesday evening, Prof. Harley Shaiken (Professor of Education and Geography and Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley) and Dr. Rafael Fernández de Castro (Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México) engaged in a lively discussion about the state of U.S.-Mexico relations in the two years since the election of Pres. George W. Bush in the United States and Pres. Vicente Fox in Mexico.

Prof. Fernández opened the discussion with a summary of U.S.-Mexico relations since the inaugurations of Fox and Bush. Two years ago, what would come to be known as the “Whole Enchilada” was beginning to take shape. Foreign minister Jorge Castañeda pressured Pres. Fox to make Mexico a priority for the Bush administration, and an agreement was put on the table that would “have a little bit for everyone.” Two of the most important elements of this agreement were 1) the regularization of legal status for Mexicans already in the United States (a request by Latino organizations and unions) and 2) the reinstatement of a guest worker program (which many employers support). The talks gained momentum during Pres. Fox’s well-received visit to Congress from Sept. 5–7, 2001. This euphoric stage ended on Sept. 11, 2001 when the possibility of quickly passing an agreement was crushed by the terrorist attacks.

In spite of recent set-backs, Fernández remains optimistic about the long-term possibility of a future agreement. He believes that a crucial change is needed in U.S.-Mexico relations in light of major contradictions in the history of the two nations. While Mexico was the biggest trade partner of the United States in 2000, in that same year 490 Mexicans died crossing the border illegally. According to Fernández, “the migration status quo cannot continue.” In the short-term Fernández emphatically stressed that Mexico needs to “look inwards and put its house in order.” Issues such as domestic economic reform and Mexico’s treacherous southern border must be dealt with in order to prepare for the possibility of future talks.

Following Fernández’ statements, Prof. Harley Shaiken put forth three paradoxes that he believes define U.S.-Mexico relations. First of all, although there are millions of Americans and Mexicans who are affected by the fate of this relationship, Mexico no longer seems to be on the Bush agenda. Secondly, the Latino vote is crucial for both parties. Thirdly, there is a significant lack of shared vision to improve this relationship despite newfound cooperation in previously contested areas such as anti-drug trafficking measures. Shaiken also noted the importance of the bold character of former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda who was integral to Fox’s agenda vis à vis the United States at the beginning of his presidency. Castañeda was able to make Mexico an important “interlocutor” with powerful American interest groups such as unions, environmentalists and Latino organizations. This began an important process of bridging the two civil societies.

Today, however, Prof. Shaiken does not share his colleague’s optimism about the future of a binational agreement on migration. Like Fernández, he was present during Fox’s visit to Washington. However, Shaiken believes that what is now needed is to “turn the NAFTA coalition on his head.” He stated that Castañeda underestimated the difficulty of rallying support around such an agreement. Shaiken added that to push now for a “development fund” for Mexico is nearly impossible in light of the looming specter of a trillion dollar deficit and the need for services in the U.S. Prof. Shaiken put forth three final issues that he sees as crucial: 1) the status quo of Mexican migration to the United States, which he also believes is no longer workable, 2) the importance of water and the border, and lastly 3) the broader relationship of the two countries. He believes the question is not whether these issues will be dealt with, but when and how well. According to Shaiken, any solution must include several important dimensions. For example, an incremental approach must be situated within the context of a broader vision. Also, regional and local actions will be very important to laying the groundwork for positive relations in the future. Lastly, Shaiken reiterated his call for deeper cross-border links between civil societies, which he believes can occur through discussions such as this one, which was part of a larger series, the U.S.-Mexico Futures Forum.

The discussion ended with questions from key audience members such as Prof. Alex Saragoza of the Chicano Studies Department and Sandy Tolan, a Hewlett Foundation Teaching Fellow at the School of Journalism. The dialogue was moderated by Professor Lydia Chavez, who teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism and is Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Center for Latin American Studies.

Harley Shaiken argues that the U.S.-Mexican relationship in the near-future will continue to revolve around paradoxes of migration and trade.


Professors Shaiken and Fernández de Castro chat after the talk with (from left) Bernardo Mendez, Press Consul to the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, and Professor Alex Saragoza.

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