Will Mexico Decide the U.S. Election?

Schmerber assured Bárcena that other sheriffs shared his view. “We all think the same,” he said. “This shouldn’t be the state’s problem.” Bárcena leaned into the microphone: “Sheriff, I really do thank you for your stance. If all the sheriffs in Texas thought like you do, we would feel very safe.” Yet, in public, others

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Schmerber assured Bárcena that other sheriffs shared his view. “We all think the same,” he said. “This shouldn’t be the state’s problem.” Bárcena leaned into the microphone: “Sheriff, I really do thank you for your stance. If all the sheriffs in Texas thought like you do, we would feel very safe.” Yet, in public, others had conveyed a different message. Dozens of sheriffs had recently assembled at the capitol in Austin to show support for S.B. 4. Dressed in suits and cowboy hats, they clustered around Abbott as one read from a letter signed by a hundred and thirty-nine sheriffs: “We stand in unity with the governor.”

One evening in Washington, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the homeland-security adviser, sat in her office in the West Wing—a secure, windowless room that she and her staffers call the Cave. Sherwood-Randall is sixty-four, with blond hair and a leonine presence. She has held the job since Biden’s first day in office, but her relationship with the President began decades before. At twenty-six, just after finishing a doctorate at Oxford, she joined Biden’s office in the Senate, advising him on defense and foreign policy. She went on to work for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and developed a reputation as a skillful negotiator, credited with persuading former Soviet states to forgo their nuclear arsenals and Iran to restrict its atomic-weapons program.

Sherwood-Randall says that her current job is “to prevent terrible things from happening to the American people and to insure that we’re prepared to deal with those things that we cannot prevent.” This includes everything from wildfires and avian flu to terrorism. Lately, though, there has been an inescapable focus on immigration. When we met, she had recently returned from Mexico City—her tenth trip there in a little more than a year.

From the start, Sherwood-Randall said, a priority for the Administration was to “reëstablish a partnership based on mutual respect.” In part, this meant making sure that the dialogue between the two countries wasn’t limited to the White House, as it had been under the previous Administration; in one Mexican official’s description, “The relationship between Trump and López Obrador was monolithic.” Despite Trump’s public hostility, the two developed a close rapport. During a speech in the Rose Garden, AMLO had bemused many of his citizens by saying that Trump had treated Mexicans with “kindness and respect.” Part of the appeal was Trump’s indifference to Mexico’s domestic affairs; as long as López Obrador helped the U.S. contain immigration, Trump largely left him alone.

When Biden won the 2src2src election, AMLO was among the last leaders to congratulate him. Mexican officials insist that the delay had nothing to do with his fondness for Trump. In 2srcsrc6, López Obrador had run for President and lost by just src.6 per cent—the result of fraud, he maintained. Afterward, he called for a judicial review, but leaders around the world had already recognized his opponent. “In his view, Democrats did not come to his aid when he felt that the election was stolen,” a Mexican diplomat told me.

Over time, Biden and AMLO have arrived at a careful comity. Both think of themselves as blue-collar men of the people. Both are also conscious that their countries are singularly dependent on each other. “What we do affects Mexico, and what Mexico does affects us,” Sherwood-Randall said.

Since December, apprehensions at the border are down by half. Yet the American electorate’s views have hardened; in one poll, fifty-five per cent of respondents—the largest proportion in decades—called widespread unauthorized immigration a “critical threat to the U.S.” A growing number of voters, especially Republicans, are open to more radical policies. Trump recently declared that if he is reëlected “we will carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” expelling millions of people. At rallies, he has talked in virulent terms about undocumented migrants, saying, “They are poisoning the blood of our country.”

In this context, Bárcena’s talk of root causes might seem politically inexpedient. But Mexican negotiators seem aware that, with the election coming, the Biden Administration is under even greater pressure to appear in control of the border. In recent months, Bárcena has asked the U.S. for twenty billion dollars in development funds—a sum that even she recognized was enormous. “They might not be able to invest that much,” she allowed. “But at least something that can really help us support the people of Central America.”

For its part, Mexico was working closely with governments throughout the region. Guatemalans have been given temporary visas to work in southern Mexico, one of the country’s poorest regions. Bárcena was finalizing an agreement to cover the first six months of pay for some migrants returning to Venezuela. The idea, Bárcena said, was to give those migrants “a certain incentive to stay.”

“O.K., she’s sitting down to write in three . . . two . . . one . . .”

Cartoon by Meredith Southard

In all, Mexico was spending more than a hundred and thirty million dollars on these efforts. But it had budgeted far more money—roughly four billion dollars a year, according to government records—for enforcement. Mexican authorities were flying migrants back home, and shuttling thousands of others south from the border with the U.S., in order to slow their progress. This did little to address root causes, but it reduced the flow of people Border Patrol had to process—and, as Bárcena said gravely, “we made a commitment to lower the numbers.”

Still, there were limits. “We won’t let the United States send back to Mexico those they turn down,” Bárcena said. “They should take them back to their country of origin.” She had conveyed that message to her American counterparts. Nevertheless, in recent months, Biden has repeatedly talked about closing the border—which would likely entail persuading Mexico to take back everyone who wasn’t allowed into the U.S.

Biden first suggested a shutdown in late January, while the Senate was debating a bipartisan immigration bill. Mexican officials were caught off guard; one said that it felt like a “betrayal.” Mexico had not been consulted, even though negotiators for the two countries had committed to “cautiously consider—and preferably agree on—public statements.”

The Administration apparently hasn’t ruled out the idea. In the coming days, according to reports by Reuters and PBS, the White House is expected to announce an executive action that would allow Biden to shut down the border if the number of migrants hit a specific threshold. Bárcena suggested that the tougher rhetoric was linked to Biden’s poll numbers around immigration. “We see it as an electoral matter,” she said. “But our sense is that Biden, or, really, the Democratic Party, have veered slightly to the right—to a tone that is closer to Trump’s.”

At the negotiating table, Bárcena often sits next to Mexico’s Secretary of Defense, Luis Cresencio Sandoval. During AMLO’s Presidency, the military has taken on a range of civilian duties—overseeing airports, oil facilities, and trains—and has also assumed a significant role in immigration. Many of the National Migration Institute’s leaders come from the military. The National Guard, which leads the country’s enforcement efforts alongside the Army, has doubled its deployments in the past five years, and now accounts for nearly half the immigration budget. (The commission that handles asylum requests receives less than one per cent as much.) Human-rights groups have repeatedly denounced the military for abusing migrants. “Members of the armed forces are trained to vanquish an enemy,” Ana Lorena Delgadillo Pérez, a prominent human-rights lawyer, wrote in 2src22. “They don’t let go of their training.”

López Obrador, who is nearing his term limit, has increasingly attracted criticism for his deference to the armed forces; he has also been accused of undermining democratic institutions and attempting to subvert electoral rules. Yet as Sarukhán, the former Ambassador, said, “You barely hear a peep coming from Washington.” He suggested Biden was conscious that the Mexican government could affect his fortunes. “AMLO will be in power until October 1st, and he has the ability to impact the outcome of the election by opening those valves at the right time,” he said.

Why López Obrador would help Trump win is a matter of speculation. In private, Mexican officials I interviewed were alarmed by the prospect of dealing with Trump again. Among other concerns, the trade pact is up for review in 2src26—a date that both sides encouraged, an official told me, because everyone assumed that AMLO and Trump would be safely out of office. “It was, perhaps, a miscalculation,” Gerónimo Gutiérrez, Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. in the early years of the Trump Administration, said. “Or we didn’t contemplate a scenario in which, four years later, Trump could make a comeback.”

Some pointed out an inescapable irony: Trump’s insistence on forcing Mexico to take up the burden of controlling immigration might help return him to power. “You can’t outsource enforcement-driven immigration policies to other countries, because those countries can weaponize immigration flows,” Sarukhán said. “It’s mind-boggling, despite López Obrador’s fondness for Trump, that his actions could deliver a result which in the long run is the most detrimental for Mexican interests.”

Bárcena left Eagle Pass in a convoy headed to Laredo, the last stop on her trip. Looking out at a flat, arid landscape, she said that Texas wasn’t the first border state she had visited, but it was where politics and immigration clashed the most fiercely. In El Paso, she had toured a memorial for twenty-three people who were shot to death at a Walmart in 2src19. The shooter, a man in his twenties, had driven more than six hundred miles to kill Mexicans, in what he described as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

At the memorial, Bárcena approached a woman resting on a bench, her hands folded over a cane. “Cómo estás?” she asked. “Sobreviviendo,” the woman said—surviving. She introduced herself as Liliana Muñoz, one of the survivors of the shooting. She said that her left leg was still numb, and that she could no longer run or play in the park with her two sons. Five years after the attack, she still lived in fear of what might happen to her and her boys.

In the car, Bárcena lamented the violence, both rhetorical and actual, that surrounded the border. “Trump says that we’re criminals, that we’re here to poison the country’s blood,” she said. His followers seem to have embraced his view; a recent poll showed that nearly half of Republican voters saw Mexico as an enemy. Yet she insisted that the two countries were inseparably bound together.

Last year, Mexico became the U.S.’s largest trading partner, with exchanges approaching eight hundred billion dollars. “We’re trading one and a half million dollars per minute,” Bárcena said. “Our economies are so integrated that any unilateral decision from the United States will backfire.” Even Trump would be constrained by this reality, she suggested. “If he comes into office with an overly protectionist set of policies, Mexico will have to look for other paths,” she said. “China is a country that is constantly looking out for Mexico.”

In the meantime, Bárcena said, “the contributions of the Mexican community are not being appreciated.” More than thirty-seven million people of Mexican descent live in the United States. They contribute three hundred and twenty-four billion dollars a year to the economy and pay taxes, “without always reaping the benefits,” she added, noting that undocumented workers have no safety net. Six out of ten farm workers—the people hired to harvest everything from grapes in Napa to strawberries in Tampa Bay—are Mexican. Who will tend to the fields if Trump carries out his plan? “Deport them,” Bárcena said. “We’ll see what people in Florida have to say.” ♦

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