Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the U.S. Together, with Andrew Selee

May 21, 2018

Detail from book cover.

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Today we are speaking with Andrew Selee, author of a new book entitled Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together. Andrew is the president of the Migration Policy Institute, which provides research, analysis, and new ideas for immigration and integration policy in the United States, Europe, and around the world.

Thank you for joining us.

ANDREW SELEE: Thank you, Joanne. Great to be with you.

JOANNE MYERS: Whenever we hear the word "Mexico" it is usually in the negative and in the context about Trump's promise to build "a big, beautiful wall" to keep Mexican criminals from coming across the border into the United States. While it may be true that Mexico faces crime and corruption, this fixation on keeping Mexicans out tends to deny what you write about in Vanishing Frontiers, which is the remarkable transformation taking place between our two countries over the past two decades.

So, Andrew, what is Trump missing?

ANDREW SELEE: You know, it really is an amazing story. I think in some ways Trump is trying to break a relationship that has become very deep in our lives. Mexico is very present in our daily lives, sometimes even in ways we don't realize.

A couple of things that I found amazing: I lived in San Diego many years ago, in the 1990s, about 20 years ago. Going back and finding, for example, that San Diego and Tijuana now think of each other as a single metropolitan area. In the book I have an interview with the mayor of San Diego, who is a Republican, Kevin Faulconer. He has no problems with the president.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think they think of themselves as twin cities, like Minneapolis/St. Paul?

ANDREW SELEE: They think of themselves as twin cities, right—it's St. Paul/Minneapolis, it's Dallas/Fort Worth almost—except that there's a border in between. Mayor Faulconer says, "We think of ourselves as a single region."

The thing that crystallized it for me is that actually San Diego had been looking for 30 or 40 years at how to build a bigger airport. When I was living there, there were all sorts of ideas on where they could do this, and it was a constant conversation. They finally realized that Tijuana already had an airport that was bigger, that had flights to Asia, that had a longer runway, that had actually two runways that were longer than the San Diego airport runway, and it made more sense, instead of building a new airport in San Diego, just to use the Tijuana airport and to build a bridge across the border fence.

That's what they did. So there's now a bridge across the border fence, and Americans can check in on the San Diego side and cross over as though they're in an American airport; they just have to show their passport as they are going through into Mexico, and then they go to their gate in the Tijuana airport.

How many creative things are going on between San Diego and Tijuana? That's just one of the many examples. But if you look at Hollywood and how connected it is to Mexican cinema—you've had four of the last five Oscar-winning directors who are Mexicans.

JOANNE MYERS: Right, The Shape of Water.

ANDREW SELEE: The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro—phenomenal; Alejandro González Iñárritu; you have Gravity with Alfonso Cuarón. There are these deep connections, and there are actors and actresses and screenwriters and editors. There is just a lot going on between Hollywood and Mexico.

Then you get into business, and you can go down the list and you see how much Mexico is really part of our daily lives in ways that most Americans don't necessarily realize yet. But no wall will stop that.

JOANNE MYERS: You speak about how this relationship has been a bridge. But how has Mexico changed because of this relationship with the United States?

ANDREW SELEE: Mexico really made a bet 25, almost 30 years ago when it decided to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It bet that tying its economy to the United States was going to help Mexico develop. It has been an uneven bargain, but for the most part it has worked out. Mexico has a much bigger middle class than would have been imaginable. Probably 40 to 50 percent of the population, depending on how you count it, falls into the middle class today in Mexico, which is quite surprising from when I lived there more than 20 years ago—also I lived in Mexico before San Diego.

It really is a changed country. You have a film industry that is first rate. You have a culinary industry that's first rate. You have also manufacturing—Mexico was largely an oil-based economy, and today it's a manufacturing powerhouse. It's a country that actually makes goods, and very sophisticated goods—cars and airplanes and appliances and high technology actually, audio technology and computer technology—that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

The most interesting thing is that Mexican workers make these things mostly with American workers. Almost all Mexican industry—not all of it, but much of it, probably about half of it—is deeply tied to industry in the United States. So you have Mexican-American workers actually making a car together. It's probably going to be assembled in the United States, but they're each making different parts of it. Or part of an airplane, and pieces will be made in Mexico and in the United States and it will be assembled in the United States in the end.

But this is a new economy that is very different than where Mexico was 20 or 25 or 30 years ago.

JOANNE MYERS: So Mexico has changed. But has the United States changed as a result of Mexico's rise in economic status?

ANDREW SELEE: Yes, it really has. We've changed.

One of the ways is, surprisingly, the auto industry—we all thought in the 1980s and early 1990s the American auto industry was going to go down the drain and imported cars were going to take over. It turns out that the American auto industry has done pretty well, actually, in terms of production of cars. Now, there's some automation going on and so the number of workers is actually down slightly, but the number of cars has gone way up. Not only have imported cars not knocked out American cars, but it turns out that most Japanese and Korean and German companies now make their cars in North America, mostly in the United States, a bit in Mexico, rather than trying to export to the United States. That has created more jobs for American workers.

The other thing that got me to write this book was a story of the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. One was San Diego and seeing how connected it was with Tijuana, but another story that caught my imagination was going to Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which had been the city at the center of a really tough immigration debate back in 2006. It was the first city to pass local ordinances to make it illegal to rent to or hire anyone who was in the country without legal documents and was trying to really push back against the rising number of immigrants—most of them were actually legal, but some were certainly unauthorized—who were living in Hazleton. It was a tough period for Hazleton.

But three or four years later there started to be a huge investment—instead of immigration from Mexico—of Mexican capital in and around Hazleton, and today Hazleton actually has four factories that are owned by Mexican companies. Two are actually in the city and two are nearby.

You see this across the United States, actually, where it turns out Mexico no longer has many people crossing the border to come live in the United States, but there is lots of Mexican money flowing into the United States that actually creates jobs for Americans. In Hazleton it was two factories that belong to Bimbo, which is the largest bread company in the world. We know Bimbo not by that name, which doesn't really translate well in English anyway, but we know it by the brand names, which is Sara Lee and Entenmann's, and Oroweat, and Thomas' English Muffins—

JOANNE MYERS: It's amazing.

ANDREW SELEE: —Boboli pizza crust, all these things that are on our regular breakfast and dinner plates that it turns out are owned by a Mexican company. One of the factories is Wise Foods. Wise Potato Chips is the official potato chip of the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, but it's actually owned by a Mexican company. These are companies that since they were bought by Mexican companies have actually expanded and hired more workers.

This is something that goes on across the United States. You suddenly have Mexican capital flowing into the United States and creating jobs, and that is something we can use. There are a lot of spillover effects from having a neighbor that actually is a good investor and a country that is friendly to us as well.

JOANNE MYERS: How would ending NAFTA affect our trade relations, then?

ANDREW SELEE: Ending NAFTA would really be a shot in our own foot. So many of our industrial processes and our manufacturing is really tied with Mexico, so we've got—the auto industry and the aeronautics industry, airplanes. You pretty much can't get into a vehicle in the United States that hasn't been built jointly by American and Mexican workers. Almost any vehicle you would get into, whether it's an airplane, a train, a bus, a car, or a Jeep, is going to be made by workers in both countries. It has probably been assembled in the United States because most heavy assembly is still in the United States, but it has parts that were made in both countries. So ending NAFTA would really make those processes much more expensive. It would make it very costly. For us as consumers it would much more expensive to buy a car. It indirectly drives up your train ticket as well, eventually.

Then we would also lose our second biggest export market. A lot of soybeans, corn, pork, and other goods that American farmers make go to Mexico. I actually have an interview with a soybean farmer from North Dakota in the book who talks about how important that is for soybean farmers and for corn farmers in North Dakota having a market in Mexico. Whether or not they have ever gone there, whether or not they—they mostly work through brokers; they don't need to go there directly themselves, but they know that this is a big part of where their harvest goes, and those ties are really deep.

It would hurt the Mexicans as well. Mexicans export beer to begin with, Dos Equis and Corona, but also strawberries and winter vegetables and a lot of things to the United States, and so you would see a lot of pain on both sides for people who make these things.

JOANNE MYERS: I just read somewhere today, I think, that Mexico's economy is growing overall in such a way that it could surpass Canada's by 2050 and thereby will become one of the top 10 economies of the world.

It's like China. China has won the trade war because we have backed down. Mexico in the end will probably win as well if we don't continue with NAFTA.

ANDREW SELEE: In the end it's a relationship that has been in both of our interests, and with Canada as well. We've created a trading bloc that is really powerful where we make things together and we also buy things from each other. The great thing with both Mexico and Canada is that these are countries that we are close to. Our geopolitical interests are actually pretty aligned. They are easy relationships most of the time. It has gotten a little more tense now—the current administration and renegotiating NAFTA—but for the most part Mexico is a country that is deeply aligned with the United States on geopolitical issues as is Canada. So it has been a fluid relationship and one where we've increasingly been able to think of each other as partners manufacturing things for the world.

The other area where we've really become close among the three NAFTA countries is in energy, and that wasn't even in the original NAFTA, but we're close to being energy independent, not in the United States but in North America. If you add up the United States, which is the energy powerhouse, but Canada, which has been very successful in energy, and Mexico, which has strong oil reserves, you end up with a bloc of countries that is fairly energy independent.

Obviously, we still buy oil and gas—well, not gas anymore, but we buy oil on the open market from other countries. But it's nice knowing that if there were ever shocks in the global market we actually have almost enough at this point, and soon we will have enough oil and gas among those three countries that we actually can survive and can thrive pretty well, no matter what happens in the rest of the global economy.

JOANNE MYERS: I think you've made a strong case for the trade and economics between our two countries, but today the debate about Mexico really centers on immigrants, and it's the one issue that increasingly seems to separate us and polarize us. What is the state of immigration today? Is it true that more Mexicans are trying to illegally cross the borders, or has that diminished somewhat in the past couple of years?

ANDREW SELEE: The debate has a bit of a retro feel to it because it was true. Fifteen years ago there was a huge number of Mexicans trying to cross the border to get into the United States, not going through the visa system to get there just getting through however they could. But today, actually, there are very few Mexicans who try to cross the border illegally. I think that 1971 was the last time we saw this small a number of Mexicans trying to cross the border illegally. Mexicans have decided for the most part to bet on their own country and stay there.

We are seeing Central Americans trying to cross the border, and there are still a few Mexicans. But if you add up Mexicans and Central Americans, still it's a very low number. I think 1974 was the last time we had this few people trying to cross the border illegally, so it is way down.

In the eyes of some people, including our president, any number of people trying to cross illegally is too many, and so you could certainly make that argument. But the reality is, every year the number of Mexicans trying to cross goes way down, and it goes down significantly each year.

So it does have a bit of a retro feel. We're having a debate that we could have had 15 years ago when there really was a large number of people—there were years where you had a million people trying to cross the border illegally. Now we may have 100,000 or so people trying to cross the border illegally. Most get caught along the way, and the overall number of people living in the United States unauthorized from Mexico has gone down year after year for the last 10 or 11 years.

Could we do more on border security? We probably could. Could we do more between Mexico and the United States to deal with the flows of people coming from Central America? Certainly. But in the end it is a not a major crisis in the way that it once was.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you have any ideas about how to counter the negative narrative put forward by Donald Trump?

ANDREW SELEE: I think first of all Americans have some fears about demographic change. The United States is changing quickly, so some Americans I think are concerned about that.

I think a larger number of Americans—and this is fair—have concerns about the future of the economy. So any amount of immigration worries them because our jobs are becoming mechanized. The world of work is changing very quickly, and so any kind of competition, no matter how little—and the evidence tells us that immigration does not actually provide a lot of competition for most workers, but any amount is worrisome. I think first of all we have to be mindful that particularly in the world of work we have to find solutions for people to give them some security for the future.

Second, I think it is also talking about the relationship that is. I think we have to tell some of the stories about how we are connected to Mexico. This has come from Republicans and Democrats and Independents and from artists and writers and factory workers and CEOs, telling the stories about how we're connected, about the fact that American and Mexican workers are actually making things together; that San Diego and Tijuana are stronger together as a single metro region than they are if they each try to go into the future alone; that Hollywood has in fact developed great respect for the Mexican film industry, but people in the Mexican film industry really respect Hollywood and the opportunities it gives them, too.

A tenth of Americans now have their heritage in Mexico, and so this is a big part. Because people of Mexican descent intermarry a lot with others in the United States—so Mexican immigrants and their children tend to intermarry a lot—more and more of us will have Mexican heritage, and it's a big part in the same way that Irish heritage or Italian heritage or African American heritage has been a big part of the narrative in the United States. Increasingly, we need to talk about Mexican heritage as being one more thread in the tapestry of who we are as a country and a very important one, actually, one of the bigger threads that we have in our national tapestry, and I think celebrating these things and recognizing them is critical.

JOANNE MYERS: Have you come across anything that totally surprised you in reporting on all these wonderful stories and connections?

ANDREW SELEE: One of the things that surprised me, and I didn't realize it until the end of the book, was how much the world of sports—and particularly last year, the first year of the Trump administration, when we were talking about withdrawing from NAFTA and building a border wall and if we could deport more Mexicans back to Mexico—was going in the opposite direction.

You have, shortly after the president is inaugurated, the soccer federations in the United States and Mexico and Canada launching a three-way bid of the NAFTA countries to host the World Cup together, their first big North American event together. You have Major League Baseball deciding that they're going to play at least one series every year in Mexico; they started actually a couple of weeks ago, the Padres and the Dodgers played a three-game series in Monterrey, Mexico. You have the National Basketball Association last year played four games in Mexico. The National Football League played the second of six years that they've pledged to play at least one regular-season game a year in Mexico. The Pro Golfers Association (PGA) tour in golf has a couple of tournaments in Mexico.

Sometimes where you see sports go is probably where the country is going, more than politics. You see the divisive politics around Mexico and our country and you see the skepticism now in Mexico, too, because Mexicans feel under attack, and the politicians are all figuring out how to push back against Donald Trump. But then you look at the sports world and you realize how much there is actually greater integration going on between the two countries.

One of my favorite sports stories, actually, that happened as I was finishing up the book, was the Houston Astros had won the World Series, and the Houston Astros are helmed by a general manager named Jeff Luhnow, who you would think on first blush has nothing to do with Mexico, except that he was born and raised in Mexico. The general manager of the Houston Astros, who rebuilt the team and took them to the World Series, is the son of two Americans who fell in love with Mexico City and moved there and had their children in Mexico, raised their children in Mexico, and Jeff grew up bilingual and bicultural. He eventually made his career in the United States, but he has a brother who is a reporter in Mexico and still lives in Mexico, and part of his family is still in Mexico, actually.

So you realize these ties are really deep. He grew up as one of the more or less million Americans who live in Mexico, people of American descent who actually were either born in the United States or are children of Americans who live in Mexico, a huge other tie that we have going on. These are the things that are probably going to shape our future more than the negative politics we see right now.

JOANNE MYERS: A perfect way of ending Vanishing Frontiers, on a sports note, but as you've shown us, the demographics, economics, politics, and culture of these two countries have more in common than meets the eye. I thank you so much for sharing this welcome corrective to the anti-Mexico rhetoric coming from Washington these days.

Thank you, Andrew. It was really a pleasure to talk to you.

ANDREW SELEE: Thank you, Joanne. Great to be with you.

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