Great Decisions 2012 Preview: The U.S. and Mexico

The Great Decisions briefing book and television series on PBS take a closer look at the U.S. - Mexican relationship. How best can the two countries confront troublesome border issues while fostering greater economic and cultural ties? For more in-depth analysis, order the 2012 briefing book and DVD.


Current Situation

From border security and immigration to trade and investment, Americans see the impact of the U.S.-Mexico relationship on a daily basis. Despite deeply ingrained links between the two nations, the relationship has been marked by significant rough patches. A growing fence, patrol agents and violence along the border underline wavering economic and political partnerships. No U.S. president visited Mexico between 1979 and 1998. As relations today continue to oscillate, the Mexican-American community becomes only more important. At 10% of the U.S. population, Mexican-Americans comprise the majority of the Hispanic community, which at 16% is the largest minority in the country. Economically, Mexican immigrants have been and continue to be a key part of the American workforce. Today Mexico is in the midst of a dangerous drug war, how will the U.S. aid its neighbor to the south? What is the future of U.S.-Mexican relations?



From Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 to the present, the country has shared a complex relationship with its neighbor to the north. U.S.-Mexican relations began trepidatiously- land disputes, including Texas’ succession efforts and U.S. claims to the West, led to the Mexican-American War of 1846, and later to the U.S. invasion chasing Francisco “Pancho” Villa, which established extended U.S. military presence in the country. Immigration concerns have also marked the history between the two nations. The 1910 Mexican revolution drove almost 100,000 citizens north of the border, sparking a steady stream of migration. Mexicans were largely spared from the strict immigration laws of the 1920s, though programs throughout the 20th century would strive to curtail what was largely seen as a threat to American jobs. Notably, President Nixon’s War on Drugs led to increased border security in the 1970s, which would later expand to twice its size under President George W. Bush- who initiated the building of seven hundred miles of fencing between the two nations. (Other relations soured during the Bush years, notably in 2002 Mexico became the first country to withdraw from the 1947 Rio Treaty, or Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, in protest of the Iraq War). Yet since 1970, more than 10 million Mexicans have immigrated to the U.S., contributing to making the Hispanic community the largest minority in the country. Economically, the U.S. and Mexico have also shared a close link. North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, significantly expanded the economic relationship between U.S., Canada and Mexico.



Mexico is currently in the midst of a complex, sanguine drug war- one that has highlighted strains in its relationship with the U.S. For the past five years, President Felipe Calderon’s military has been on the front lines against Mexico’s drug cartels, spurring increased violence and mass protests against the numbers of innocent civilians killed. Reports note the total death toll at upwards of 40,000 in the past half-decade. The war has strained ties between the U.S. Ambassador and Mexican President, killed a U.S. customs agent, and led to the revelation of Operation Fast and Furious, a U.S. program that allegedly gave nearly 2 thousand weapons to Mexican drug traffickers. Immigration issues remain high on the list of contentions between the two nations. Policies to address illegal immigrants have been met with protests on both sides of the border, and remain a key factor in U.S. politics. Economically, the U.S. is also tied to Mexico’s increasing energy production. The Gulf of Mexico currently accounts for 30% of all U.S. oil production and over 7% of natural gas production.



Despite rising violence, one report cites the notable resilience of the Mexican economy, which grew 5.5% last year, the greatest increase in a decade. Jobs in the manufacturing sector continue to increase, even in the embattled Ciudad Juarez. This has bolstered U.S. production in Mexico, in some cases over China, and bodes well for the economic prospects of both countries. Setbacks aside, the security cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico over the past few years has been seen as a sign of increasingly positive bilateral relations, the Merida Initiative being one key example. The upcoming 2012 elections in both the U.S. and Mexico will be important in deciding the future of this relationship- and it is sure to be the subject of debate in both states. Today, reports show that the number of Mexican-American births is greater than that of Mexican immigration. In fact, Mexican immigration has reduced by 60% in the past 5 years. Mexican culture has indeed become engrained in the American narrative, rendering positive relations between the two nations all the more necessary.


Key Questions

  • What are the key issues hindering U.S.-Mexican relations today? Historically?
  • How have new agreements altered the relationship?
  • How is the U.S. cooperating with Mexico in the ongoing drug war? How have scandals such as Operation Fast and Furious hindered this effort and the greater relationship?
  • What is the future of the economic partnership between the two countries?
  • How will Mexico play in the 2012 Presidential election debates in both countries?


This Great Decisions 2012 Brief was written by Sarah Marion Shore

Order Great Decisions