The past few days, I’ve been unable to scroll through my newsfeed without seeing some news about whichever policy Donald Trump is signing into law next. Most recently, and perhaps most surprisingly, is the one about how the ‘wall’ he intends to build between the United States and Mexico — may in fact happen.
By some stroke of luck, today as I was eating lunch in the Bora Laskin Law Library, the Assistant Dean of External Relations for the faculty approached me and invited me to a roundtable discussion with Agustín Barrios Gómez, a former Mexican Congressman who has spent significant time living in Canada, the United States, and, of course, Mexico.
In light of the fearful and somewhat xenophobic atmosphere coming out of the US, and even Canada, right now, I decided to attend and take notes. Though this is by no means expansive or complete, I’ve to share some of the points brought up that most resonated with me.
- The Mexican story is not an undocumented one.
It was revealed to me today that 80% of all Mexicans in the United States are legally documented residents or citizens, and they number at app. 35 million. That’s around the population of Canada.
It was also mentioned that though the border between Canada and United States is far longer than the one between Mexico and the US, the Mexican-American border is in fact the one in which the most legally documented travelers cross in the world.
The discussion of the wall, which has captured so much domestic and international attention, is, as Gómez described it, one of “preserving ego.” John Oliver, several months back, described on Last Week Tonight how such a wall wasn’t feasible due to cost concerns; Gómez compounded upon that argument by noting that 1/3 of the current border between the United States and Mexico is on land or urbanized areas, and that those areas already contain border controls. The remainder primarily lies on the Río Bravo del Norte (or the Rio Grande, as it’s commonly referred to), and that, due to legal protections to ensure the river is navigable, a wall could not be built in the river itself.
Any wall that would be built, then, would have to occur on the American side of the river. A great deal of that land, however, is in Texas, and is owned by private landowners, many of whom are overall unwilling to sacrifice access to the river or permit nationalized construction on their private property.
Such legal and economic concerns undoubtedly have already been brought to the attention of Pres. Trump, but largely due to Trump’s fear of being perceived as weak, he may in fact feel beholden to completing it despite the overwhelming burden this places onto American stakeholders.
2. The NAFTA concern
Gómez expressed his regret that the Clinton campaign did not make more of an effort to counteract Trump’s criticisms of NAFTA, largely because he believed the discussion of NAFTA was too complicated for the American public to comprehend. Failing to discuss it cogently, however, meant that Trump’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric could continue unopposed, and that consequently a great deal of Americans believe the effects of NAFTA are negative — but without being able to articulate why.
NAFTA has been criticized for the drain on the American economy, despite the fact that 14 million Americans are either directly or indirectly employed by NAFTA. He also noted the irony of the Republicans hating NAFTA, given that former Pres. Ronald Reagan, to whom the Republicans pay so much lip service and respect, initiated NAFTA by inviting Mexico to engage in free trade agreements.
NAFTA aside, another major reason why many Americans perceive Mexican-American relations as negative is because they believe Mexico is an unequal partner in trade agreements; several counteracting statistics, however, state that $580 billion dollars are transacted between Mexico and America each year, and that $0.40 of each dollar that America pays to Mexico for imports is American content. China by contrast — $0.04.
This has already begun to have negative effects, particularly with Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have primarily served to lessen Chinese influence in the Pacific Rim and ensure Western rivalry in the East. The fear of international economic interaction stems from Trump’s promotion of, as Gómez describes, an “ethno-nationalist government”, which has traded economic well-being and potential mutual prosperity for xenophobia and protectionism.
Underlying all Mexican-American agreements, and to a large extent Canadian-American relations, is the idea of simpático, which from Spanish roughly translates to: goodwill, positive feelings, shared values. It is, in a sense, a word that represents brotherhood.
The American dollar sign, Gómez pointed out, actually comes from the Mexican peso — with the two lines symbolizing Old Spain and New Spain, and the curve symbolizing the shared cultural history.
At Republican speaking rallies, there is often talk of “taking the country back”. But, as much as the rhetoric seems to espouse American nationalism, this would symbolically entail Mexico taking back Los Angeles and San Diego: “because we named them — we made them.”
Gómez stated that while it’s true that America is the current Western hegemon, it would be incorrect to assume that it got there because of itself. The United States has been fortunate to have only two neighbours, both of whom share its values of democracy and equality under the law, both of whom are also leading economic powers, and both of whom have largely cooperated with America’s goals up until this point.
But, such cooperation is threatened if America does not agree to reciprocate the friendship it always has, particularly to Mexico. The sometimes rash words said by Donald Trump can have real consequences, because, as Gómez stated: “It involves pride. It’s not just a Mexican thing, it’s human nature. How would you feel if your Prime Minister was blackmailed into paying for a wall? It’s humiliating. The government, the people just collapse after that.”
This has major consequences, both economically and from a security standpoint. Mexico currently has travel regulations that ensures they block travelers from nation-states that the United States is hostile to; additionally, of the one terrorist who crossed in from a land border to the United States, they came not from Mexico, but Canada. Mexico also faces threats, insofar that the FBI and other major American security agencies have significant forces in Mexico — and Gómez was clear that the Mexican government would not hesitate to retaliate, “whatever that might entail.”
In this sense, it’s clear where America and Mexico stand on the issue. Which leads to my last point.
4. Rethinking Mexico — in Canada.
Another student, after the talk, raised his hand to ask how Canada could assist in this issue, while still catering to Canadian interests.
Gómez said that defending Mexico, from Canada, is in fact beneficial to Canada. “It’s not about business interests, but values.” he paused, later continuing. “Does Canada even have values?”
When we think about where we will stand on different sides of history, we have to consider whether we will be, as Gómez says, “a footnote, or a major player.” The commitment from Canada need not be high, nor need it involve economic or political moves. It could be as simple as saying that Canada doesn’t approve — that it stands behind values of fairness and freedom and brotherhood, and that such rhetoric will not be tolerated if cooperation is to be expected.
Justin Trudeau, with whom Gómez was a childhood friend, is often described as having won the election because of his emphasis on values — because he went to the airport to welcome weathered and frightened refugees, and said, “Welcome home.” Would it be right, for any of us, to stand back and pretend that we no longer have those values? Just because it’s convenient?
I later raised my hand, to say that I was an undergraduate and that politics, particularly concerning America, is important to me. However, I often felt powerless in what I could do — and somehow I thought of this blog, and how it sometimes feels like no one is listening.
Gómez paused, before saying that it is the people who have endless conviction in their beliefs who are able to make the greatest difference. Millennials are often described as an apathetic and selfish generation, but perhaps this need not be the case. He said that we, as students, have a responsibility to not only ensure our own learning, but that of our friends and peers — our responsibility goes beyond reading newspapers, and extends to speaking out, to challenging authority, to expressing our beliefs firmly but respectfully. We are called to become educated and to make conclusions, but smart and critical ones, and have an obligation to avoid facie and easy conclusions that are spoon-fed to us.
A professor, also sitting in the room, later added that it is often the Canadian tendency to put our heads down and ‘wait out the storm’. Only time would tell if we would do this again.
5. Closing thoughts
Perhaps, because of my American citizenship, or because of how political it’s become in the last year or so, I have had a great deal of time to think about what my identity as a citizen means. Barack Obama said the role of citizen is the most important in the nation.
I had a hard time believing that, when he said it. When Agustín mentioned we should speak out and become educated, I thought about how fruitless it sometimes feels — I am moved by politics everyday, but I often avoid talking about it because I know it’s not sexy, it’s not fun, and people would sometimes rather laugh about memes than think about how an immigrant several thousand miles away is suffering. I also thought of this blog, and I wondered that, for all the effort I put into educating myself, and into training myself to become more sympathetic to others, if anyone even cares, or reads what I have to say.
I’m beginning to believe, though, that this is the ugly but necessary work of politics. That though this word has such negative connotations, politics is ultimately about people, and how the things we say and do move and shape communities on an everyday basis. I was privileged to grow up in America, where I feel like I really did experience the American dream. I was privileged to learn Spanish, and to continue my studies from elementary till university, to the point that I can now read a Spanish newspaper, and hear Latino voices directly in their unfiltered form. Finally, I’m privileged to live in Canada, where we’re often praised for our loving and multicultural nature. I hope, that in this divisive time, we will follow through on that promise.