It took almost a year for the U.S Senate to confirm Roberta Jacobson as the country's next ambassador to Mexico, and the veteran State Department official steps into the job with the clock running down on the administration that appointed her.
Trade between the two countries runs into the hundreds of billions annually, and they share a border that’s a hotbed for smuggling narcotics and undocumented immigrants.
Still, the ambassador's post remained open after E. Anthony Wayne retired in August 2015, and Jacobson's confirmation was delayed by a small group of senators concerned with the role she played in re-establishing ties between the United States and Cuban governments.
Jacobson’s experience in foreign affairs was never an issue. Her resume includes more than 30 years of service, including her most recent role as the assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs.
Now, lawmakers and analysts cheering Jacobson in her new role also realize her tenure could be limited as the Obama administration begins its final months.
“I think that she is fully aware that at the end of this administration there is going to be the possibility of change,” said Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But I think that many of us are hoping that whoever wins the election in November will decide to keep her on for 12 months just to secure the continuity in the relationship.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, supported Jacobson’s nomination, urging his colleagues to confirm her.
Though a wide range of issues can affect the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States, analysts and lawmakers tend to highlight three, and they also affect Texas directly. Here are the major issues Jacobson will face head-on in her new role.
Border security and violence
The four Mexican states bordering Texas — Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas — are all under a travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State.
Tamaulipas, home to the border cities of Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Reynosa, is said to have no local or state police forces, and violent confrontations between gangs and law enforcement occur “in all parts of the region and at all times of the day,” according to the department.
The warning underscores a continuing problem for Mexico that has been a talking point north of the Rio Grande for years. And at least one Texas lawmaker said he’ll be closely watching how Jacobson manages the situation.
“My concerns are based upon what I had seen as the state department’s inaction on the issue of violence in Tamaulipas,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville. “I’ve had a good working relationship with [former] Ambassador Wayne. I look forward to having a good relationship with Ambassador Jacobson. But the facts are clear. I told her two years ago that things are really bad in Matamoros and Reynosa. Today's state department warnings prove that’s the truth.”
Wood, the Wilson Center analyst, said the state department is aware of the situation and isn’t turning a blind eye as Vela suggested.
“The U.S. consulate down there is fully aware and has been communicating the reality on the ground for a number of years,” he said. “Those of us who are in the business of analyzing Mexico are fully aware of the extent and scale of the problem in Tamaulipas. And of course, Mexican civil society is aware of it as well, so there’s been no shortage of information.”
But Wood added that there is only so much the American government can do because Mexico is a sovereign country.
“They’ve run in to all sorts of obstacles in terms of the Mexican government’s willingness to work with the United States on a solution,” he said, adding that the reason for the gridlock is that the Mexican government has a plan in place that includes a heavier military presence in the region. Although it hasn’t been too successful, Wood said, the Mexicans are sticking to it.
Vela said he’s not calling for the U.S. government to interfere with Mexico’s plan. But he insists that with added state department pressure, Mexico might consider adding to or changing its strategy.
“I think that the state department has, over the last year, stepped up its efforts. But I think there’s still a lot more to be done,” he said. “The issues of violence in Matamoros and Reynosa have a direct impact in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Illegal migration from Mexico to the United States has continued to decline over the past few years, according to the Pew Research Center.
But migration by Central Americans, specifically unaccompanied minors or mothers with children, has skyrocketed since 2013. Tens of thousands of migrants must travel through Mexico to reach the United States, which keeps an eye on Mexico's handling of its own immigration issues.
After pressure from the United States in 2014, Mexico adopted a program to strengthen its own border security called Programa Frontera Sur. The Mexican government began setting up random checkpoints on highways to search for Central American migrants without permits. It also established a stronger presence of immigration officials near the route of La Bestia, the freight train migrants used to travel by rail. Frontera Sur led to a 35 percent increase in deportations by Mexican authorities, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.
“It’s a situation that’s going to have to be managed with our help, but obviously it’s something that Mexico is going to have to deal with,” said Cornyn. “I think we are going to continue to see a flood of unaccompanied children to the United States left on our doorstep. The problem is [that] ultimately border security doesn’t just start at the border. It starts in these far away countries. It’s important that we continue to work with Mexico as we have done.”
A projected increase in 2016 means that Mexico has a long way to go before it achieves more gains. Pockets of rural Mexico remain popular smuggling routes, and Central Americans are able to easily cross the Guatemala-Mexico border illegally at the Suchiate River.
Disputes over immigration and border security haven’t impacted Texas’ multi-billion dollar trade relationship with Mexico. And American officials say a permanently installed ambassador will help sustain the uninterrupted flow of commerce.
“Our next ambassador to Mexico must have a deep understanding of our two nations' economic and cultural ties. Roberta Jacobson's record of accomplishment in diplomacy makes her an excellent choice," said Russ Jones, the president of the Border Trade Alliance, a multi-state, non-profit organization that promotes commerce and security policies.
Mexico is usually the United States’ third-largest trading partner behind Canada and China. Through March of this year, the two countries traded about $126 billion, the majority of which traveled through Texas ports, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based trade organization. Of that total, about $65.3 billion moved through the Laredo Customs District, while another $23.8 billion traveled through El Paso. The port of Houston was fifth on the list with $3.2 billion.
Cornyn said Jacobson’s confirmation could serve to educate the rest of the country on how important trade with Mexico is to states that don’t sit on the Rio Grande.
“I think what most people don’t comprehend is that there are about six million jobs in the United States that are dependent upon cross border trade with Mexico,” he said.