We Share More than a Fence

U.S.-Mexican Cooperation on Migration, Crime, and Climate

Michael Werz and Winny Chen discuss how the United States and Mexico can work together on common challenges such as migration, criminal networks, and climate change.

President Barack Obama walks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon as they leave a joint news conference at the White House on May 19, 2010. (AP/Alex Brandon)
President Barack Obama walks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon as they leave a joint news conference at the White House on May 19, 2010. (AP/Alex Brandon)

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon spoke at a White House press conference yesterday and a joint session of Congress today about some of the common challenges the United States and Mexico face—migration, international criminal networks and common security, and climate change. The Obama administration has, after many years of neglect under President George W. Bush, initiated a new era of hemispheric politics. Mexico is the closest and most important partner in this endeavor and, as the Obama administration recognizes, deserves greater support from its neighbor to the north.

The United States needs to help Mexico improve the rule of law and judicial reform, and at the same time stop the illegal flow of arms and money from the United States. Both countries need to find ways to enhance economic development. One promising way to do so is by cooperating on alternative energy; another is working together to create a rational immigration system that promotes legal, orderly migration flows. Our societies are so intertwined the relationship cannot be reduced to narco wars and antimigration laws—and no fence can reverse our common future.

Our common issues transcend the Mexican-American border and blur the traditional distinction between domestic and foreign policy. As President Calderon asserted in today’s speech before Congress, “We are stronger together than apart.” Only jointly and in close cooperation can the United States and Mexico tackle these challenges.


The recently passed anti-immigration law in Arizona has generated outrage in Mexico, and President Calderon has criticized it as discriminatory. The law was born out of frustration with the federal government’s failure to control undocumented immigration and fueled by nativist forces. The discriminatory and likely unconstitutional legislation may damage important international partnerships that are vital for U.S. security. And the racial targeting that will result if it is implemented undermines the moral standing the United States has tried so hard to rehabilitate in the last year and a half. Its passage and the backlash it has triggered put in sharp relief the urgent need for the United States to enact a comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

The Obama administration also needs to adopt a longer-term perspective with regard to immigration. Mexico is one of the few emerging economies expected to have negative population growth during this century. The country had one of the highest birth rates in the world in 1970 at over six children per family, but this number has fallen to 2.2, barely above replacement levels. Mexico’s younger population is rapidly shrinking, and the overall population may peak as early as 2025. If the Mexican economy finally lives up to its potential, it will absorb the younger generation of workers, creating a dearth of the unskilled labor that has normally fulfilled U.S. demand.

Even in the field of highly skilled workers, the U.S. and Mexican labor markets are integrating at increasing speed, creating new social and economic realities that are not fully grasped in most policy debates. Social Security and Medicare treaties are necessary for greater integration of the United States and Mexico, for example, given the increasing numbers of U.S. retirees in Mexico and large numbers of Mexican return migrants. As President Calderon asserted, “For us, migration is not just your problem.”

International criminal networks

The current drug war has wreaked havoc on Mexican society and heightened border tensions with the specter of spillover violence into the United States. The challenges posed by the escalating violence must be addressed immediately by both countries and complemented by a focused investment of political and economic resources.

New U.S. antidrug strategies such as stationing U.S. customs agents in Mexican cities and establishing corridors to the U.S. border will not solve the problem by themselves. Much less productive is the political use of the problem as exhibited by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who faces a stiff challenge to his reelection bid to the U.S. Senate and recently decided to reverse his longstanding support for comprehensive migration reform. His much-mocked “danged fence” television ad is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The reported presence of Mexican drug cartel elements in 240 U.S. cities speaks to the “insatiable” demand for drugs in this country. Secretary Hillary Clinton recently acknowledged the role U.S. consumption plays in the intensifying violence. But the responses to the drug trafficking problem have so far mostly focused on the supply side: The security cooperation within the framework of the Mérida Initiative focuses on curbing trafficking and money laundering, thus dealing with only one side of the equation.

The United States should also take away important lessons from its initiatives in Colombia, where advances have been made in strengthening the judicial system and the security forces after a decade-long war on drugs, but cocaine production is increasing. The United States must balance the current emphasis on security and military cooperation with a focus on economic development through USAID. And USAID must establish a long-term investment strategy in Mexico to complement the eradication and control efforts.

Climate change

President Calderon mentioned climate change as a common challenge for a good reason—the problems associated with a warming environment will bring the United States and Mexico even closer together. Cooperation in the realm of renewable energy is important and needs to be dramatically enhanced. Mexico is an important player in international climate negotiations and host of the next U.N. climate conference in Cancun later this year, and it is also a leader in innovation and has ambitious plans for emissions reductions. EURUS, the largest wind farm in the entire continent that will be built in Oaxaca State, is only one example.

Mexico’s government also intends to play a major role in the field of energy efficiency in emerging societies. The future of the creation of a national climate program in the United States that includes a carbon pricing and trading mechanism is still uncertain. But three regional carbon limitation and trading initiatives are underway in the United States, with the largest taking shape as the Western Climate Initiative.

The six Mexican states along the U.S. border are already official observers in the WCI, joining 11 states and Canadian provinces. The federal governments in both the United States and Mexico should take aggressive steps to make it more feasible for these Mexican states to become full partners in the WCI to achieve meaningful reductions in carbon pollution and move toward greater U.S.-Mexican cooperation on a climate treaty in the future.

The next steps

The U.S. government needs to allocate an adequate amount of its institutional and political capacities toward Mexico and their common problems. It should also work thorough all available multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to build effective development plans. Unfortunately, the latter has increasingly moved toward budget support and nonproject programs instead of focusing funding on long-term goals that can generate substantial best practice examples in the field of renewable energy, conservation, reforestation, urban modernization, and education.

USAID has a number of initiatives in these important fields but projects are often not sustainable and lack sustained funding. More strategic and long-term planning is needed in our development communities and foreign policy to move current development practices beyond stove-piped, on-off projects and into effective and comprehensive strategies that can tackle core problems.

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Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow and Winny Chen is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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