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Shannon K. O'Neil: The TT Interview

The senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations on immigration reform, security in Mexico, the country’s budding prosperity amid an escalating drug war, and what the United States needs to understand.

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In her book Two Nations Indivisible, Shannon K. O’Neil dissects the complicated, symbiotic and often testy relationship between the United States and Mexico as they charge ahead in the 21st century. For Mexico, it means a changing system of checks and balances and a growing middle class, which is occurring against the backdrop of a horrific, years-long drug war.

O' Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the U.S. will be better served if it acknowledges the changes under way in Mexico. 

O’Neil, in Austin recently on a book tour, took time to speak with the Tribune about what she sees looking forward with Texas' largest trading partner, her thoughts on immigration reform, the new Mexican administration and why it is important to realize Mexico still has a challenging road ahead.

An abridged transcript of that interview follows.

Texas Tribune: Very early in your book, you mention that the United States has historically misunderstood Mexico. Why do you make that assessment?

O’Neil: The U.S. misunderstands Mexico often because it doesn’t give Mexico enough time. When you look at the people in our foreign policy elite, you look at the people that are really guiding our international relations and their careers and their interests. They move far away from this hemisphere. They focus on the Middle East; they focus on Europe, on Russia or China, but much less on the Western Hemisphere and very little on Mexico. So when we get to the bilateral relationship, without people studying it, they make quick assumptions about our neighbors, many which are often faulty.

TT: What are some of those assumptions?

O’Neil: They think of Mexico 30-plus years ago, not the Mexico of today and the changes that have happened there. Or the Mexico they know is just one part of Mexico, the beaches of their family vacation or the Mexico that hits the headlines, the violence and the insecurity, and not the other things that have happened there. 

TT: You sound alarm bells that seem to say, “Pay attention, we can’t keep thinking this way.” Why? What’s changed?

O’Neil: The U.S.-Mexico relationship has changed dramatically and no other country affects the United States on a day-to-day basis as much as Mexico. From the food on our tables, to the parts in the cars we drive, to the energy that fuels our buses, to the consumers that buy our goods, to the drugs on our streets, Mexico is part of our everyday lives. So what happens in Mexico, if Mexico does well or if Mexico does poorly — that has repercussions far beyond the southwest border.

TT: If you could pitch your own version of immigration reform what would it look like?

O’Neil: The practical solution is big immigration reform because the system doesn’t work today for all the things we want, whether it’s border enforcement and following the rules, or whether it’s addressing the job market and managing the labor market needs we have today and the ones we are going to have in the future.

We need this reform. Take border security for instance: The big critique has been that you need to secure the border before you talk about reform. And in doing that over the last 10 years, presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, have poured money down there, doubled the budget, and doubled the Border Patrol to more than 20,000 people. But if you look forward and want to improve border security more, that’s going to involve changing the laws rather than just throwing more resources. That is because for Mexicans, if you have close family members there, a wife or a father or mother, you will wait decades to get in to this country. If you don’t, there is no line to get into. So the incentives today, for both of those categories, are to come here illegally. So if we change our laws to allow more Mexicans to come here legally, and have a line for them to get into in a reasonable amount of time, then it would cut down on the incentives for illegal migration and it would improve border security.

TT: Do you think what is being pitched (on immigration reform) is going to be too burdensome? Are people here in the country illegally going to think “why bother” to wait more than a decade?

O’Neil: It depends on the details and what comes out. You talk to families, and everyone desperately wants their brother or sister or mom or dad to be able to be here legally, so even if the path is really long, even if it costs a lot of money, I think a lot of people will jump at the chance to begin that path, even if it will take 10 years and a lot of money.

TT: Do you see changes in the perception that Hispanic immigrants don’t want to assimilate? Or do some people still think that they want to come to the U.S. and “take it back”?

O’Neil: I do think the perception is changing, but very slowly. But history tells you the perception will change. If you look back (at my ancestors) with a name like Shannon O’Neil it was “Irish need not apply” — they were dirty and lazy and all the derogatory terms you can apply to all different types of groups, including Mexicans today. And now we wouldn’t think twice about hiring an Irish person. And I think that will happen again with Mexican Americans.

TT: You write about Mexico’s current ruling party, the PRI, and the impact of its return. Is this a new PRI, and how important are the other parties, the PAN in particular? Are the parties able to work together enough to where it’s not solely about this administration?

O’Neil: I’ll say this: Whether it’s an old PRI or a new PRI or factions of both, which is probably the real case, Mexico is different. And what’s different about Mexico is there are real checks and balances compared to the last time the PRI was in Los Pinos [in 2000]. The Congress matters and the PRI doesn’t have a majority, so it really matters, for decisions big and small. So that’s different. And the justice system, at least the Supreme Court — when you think of branches of government and checks and balances — matters. So there is a difference there. And on the other side, the press matters. Twenty years ago, the press cowed or were co-opted, and now there is a free and vibrant press, at least in some parts. So whatever the intentions of the PRI, I do think that Mexico has changed. And the way it’s changed is that voters matter. It’s a democratic system and I do see a competitive electoral democracy going forward.

TT: If President Enrique Peña Nieto can successfully pass tax and energy reform, how much will that affect the Mexican middle class?

O’Neil: I think it will affect Mexico broadly but the middle class in a couple of ways. One will be foreign direct investment in the economy and opening up the energy sector. It would mean cheaper energy in the medium-to-longer term, so that will be better. But it will also send a sign to Mexicans and foreign investors that Mexico is open for business. So if Mexico, through energy reforms, telecommunication reform and others starts to chip away at the monopolies, starts to make it more competitive for business to go in to Mexico, there is a huge opportunity for manufacturing and others to grow. That will help the middle class.

TT: A growing democracy also means growing discontent within that democracy with groups like the student movement, Yo Soy 132. In the age of the internet and Twitter and other social media, you see a lot more people speaking against what is going on. Is this healthy? And is this going to continue?

O’Neil: I do think it’s healthy. It’s free speech. You might not always like it, it may not be elegant or pretty, but I do think it’s important. So whether you are on the left or the right or you’re for or against — I think it’s important to have a space and allow you to say those things — that’s a big change in Mexico. And I do think it’s going to continue. And you’re starting to see other watchdog organizations in Mexico that are holding governors and other elected officials accountable. They are using the freedom of information law passed in 2002 to get that information.

TT: The New York Times published an opinion piece about Mexico and how it’s back in the game. It had very good points, but it’s also been maligned. On Sunday, there was an article in Reforma about farmers hunting rats for food. Is it valid to still make the argument that it’s not all rosy, that the country still has a long way to go?

O’Neil: You can see Mexico as glass half full or glass half empty. Are there tens of millions who are still incredibly poor? Yes. Unlike 20 years ago, there are also tens of millions who are not poor. In my view you need to recognize both, and then you can think of the lessons and learn how tens of millions came from the very poor in to this middle class and think how you can help those that are still down. If you don’t recognize the dramatic shift, if you only focus on one side, then you miss the lessons that can actually help those people. It’s not that these people don’t exist — they do exist — and the Mexican government and other international organizations shouldn’t forget them. But it’s important to recognize all the realities.

TT: The violence continues. It’s changed in that you’re not getting more than a dozen kids massacred at a party in Juárez, which is where the focus was. Today it’s three people killed here, four over here — the numbers still add up to a very high crime rate. How long does this last?

O’Neil: It’s going to last for a while. I do think in this sexenio [six-year term], if this government pushes very hard to clean up the cops, make this transition in the justice system from a written system to an accusatorial system, if they really make that push and invest their political capital, I think they can come out of this better. The trend is going to be in the right direction.

TT: Is the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion aid package to Mexico and Central America, a good thing?

O’Neil: I think Mérida is a good thing, and more because it is the United States and Mexico working together on security rather than the details of the program. For many years, we cautiously almost ignored the security issue. We’d work together, then something would happen and we’d stay away from each other — part of this misunderstanding. And what we have seen with Mérida is that for five years, there have been a few bumps in the road, but we continue to work together, and that is important. We share a border, we share economies, we share people — and it’s important that we are working together on security for both societies.

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