In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, one of the only questions about immigration and foreign policy was reduced to a trivia point. Vanessa Huac, a moderator from Telemundo, asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) about how she couldn’t name the president of Mexico in an interview last week.
Klobuchar chalked the snafu up to “momentary forgetfulness” that doesn’t reflect her knowledge of the country and clumsily gave “greetings to President Lopez Obrador.” But rival and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dug in on the memory lapse, pointing out that as someone on a committee that oversees border security, Klobuchar should know the answer.
“Are you ― are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” snipped Klobuchar. “Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”
The exchange quickly devolved into a mud-slinging contest where the two candidates argued about the merits of Senate vs. mayoral experience. But lost in their insults was any real discussion about U.S.-Mexico relations, despite the many political, cultural and economic issues at stake.
“This was a contest between the two of them, basically playing out for the cameras,” said Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The fact that presidential candidates are so unfamiliar with the immediate neighbor of the United States is shocking and it is inexcusable.”
The ties between the U.S. and Mexico merit more than a “Jeopardy!” moment on the debate stage. Thirty six million Mexican-Americans live in the U.S., and the two cultures are deeply intertwined through family, business, culture and food. Tens of thousands of U.S. residents cross the border every day for work, school or simply to shop. Mexico is America’s third-largest trading partner, with more than $1 billion worth of goods and services crossing the border each day. Plus, the U.S.-Mexico border is a focal point of Donald Trump’s presidency, and he is constantly pressuring Mexican government to help act out his agenda.
“Mexico is omnipresent in the U.S.,” said Werz. “Virtually everybody in the United States is a stakeholder in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.”
Policies toward Mexico offer Democrats a clear place to differentiate themselves from Trump, who has turned Mexico into his invisible wall or, as analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor put it on a Mexican cable news show, the president’s piñata during his reelection campaign.
Trump has made cracking down on illegal migrants and asylum-seekers a tentpole of his administration, and he’s leaned on Mexico’s government for help. He’s described Mexicans as criminals and rapists, and threatened to designate Mexican cartels as terrorist groups and to “go in and clear out” drug cartels if the country didn’t slash its crime rates.
Over the summer, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports if the country didn’t take steps to keep immigrants from crossing into the United States. Obrador agreed. The Mexican president sent National Guard troops in riot gear to the border, who in January stopped a caravan of 4,000 immigrants from crossing the border by using pepper spray on families that included small children. They detained and sent hundreds of people back to dangerous situations in Honduras and Guatemala.
Mexico is also cooperating with Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced more than 57,000 asylum-seekers to wait in unsanitary camps at the border for their court dates in the U.S. The program has resulted in violence, kidnappings and more family separations.
Moderators should have asked presidential candidates about how they would manage immigration between the two countries, said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute. Although Democrats are united on disavowing Trump’s policies, none have articulated how they would work with Mexico and help asylum-seekers without creating spikes in illegal immigration or sending troops to the southern border, he said.
“There isn’t really a vision on how to do it differently,” Selee said. “That would be a great debate.”
Any U.S. president would have to deal with the fact that in 2019 Mexico had a record high number of homicides, and that criminal activity spills into the U.S. with drugs and gun trafficking.
Selee said the moderators could have asked a question about how candidates would tackle crime in the country, since Obrador has pushed back on Trump’s threats to intervene with U.S. troops. Or, they could have asked about an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which cracks down on labor practices in Mexico.
The next person to sit in the White House needs to be prepared to take a cooperative approach with Mexico, foreign policy experts said.
Werz said politicians need to see Mexico as an asset for economic and cultural growth, rather than a gateway country for labor, illegal immigration and crime. The globalized country has more than 126 million people and has made big strides in areas such as aeronautics, technology and electronics.
He said the country is important enough to be addressed on the debate stage in a serious way, with questions such as “Where would you like the U.S.-Mexico relationship to be in 2028?” rather than “‘Jeopardy!’-like questions by the moderators.”
The fact that so many Mexicans live in America also means the two countries should be looking for ways to grow together.
“There are a lot of voters out there who have family and ancestral ties to Mexico,” said Selee. “They’d like to actually know what Democratic candidates think about their country’s heritage.”
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