Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently weighed in on the upcoming GOP primary in an apparent attempt to help an unlikely ally, Donald Trump. The day after Trump’s rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, launched his campaign for president, AMLO, as he’s called in Mexico, said he hoped that “Hispanics in Florida will wake up and not give him one single vote, to not vote for those who persecute migrants, those who don’t respect migrants.” AMLO appeared to be responding to Florida’s recent immigration law, SB 1718, which requires employers with at least 25 employees to use E-verify, creates penalties for smuggling of illegal aliens across state lines, invalidates out-of-state drivers’ licenses given to illegal aliens, and requires hospitals to file reports about the cost and impact of uncompensated care given to illegal aliens.
Trump, of course, launched his own presidential campaign with a famous (or infamous) promise to get tough on illegal immigration. Announcing his candidacy on June 16, 2015, Trump said that it was “way past time to build a massive wall,” declaring, “Mexico is not our friend.” Mexican immigrants, Trump said, were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume are good people.” He boasted: “Nobody can build a bigger and better wall than Donald Trump.”
President Trump didn’t get a wall built, though, and at his campaign launch last month with Elon Musk, DeSantis was asked about that failure and touted his own ability to get the job done. DeSantis cited his experience getting bridges rebuilt after Hurricane Ian, the passage of SB 1718, his move to send asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard last year, and his order to send Florida national guard troops to the border. “There’s leverage that we can use vis-à-vis Mexico that I think presidents have not been willing to do I think sometimes for political purposes,” he said, without mentioning Trump. “I’m not going to take no for an answer, and I think our voters are sick of the empty promises, they want to see action.” DeSantis also spoke repeatedly of holding the Mexican drug cartels accountable for their actions.
Though AMLO’s unlikely bromance with Trump seemed impossible in 2015, it emerged nonetheless in 2017 and 2018, when Trump secured cooperation on the border and signed the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to NAFTA. A little-reported fact is that Senator Chuck Grassley and other Republicans wanted Trump to cancel a guest-worker program introduced as part of NAFTA in 1993. The TN visa is a numerically unlimited program whereby professionals from Mexico and Canada (though it is overwhelmingly used by Mexicans) and their dependents can legally work in the U.S. for three years at a time with the possibility of renewals.
The TN visa gets nowhere near the press coverage that the H1B visa gets, but it has become an increasingly popular avenue for Mexicans to find jobs in America as nurses, hotel managers, scientists, animal breeders, and dozens of other occupations. Unlike with the H1B, employers do not have to file petitions for workers using the TN visa, and the program operates with no annual caps. The year before Trump took office, 24,530 TN visas were issued to workers. That figure grew to 32,233 in 2019 and reached 49,936 last year. In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer during the USMCA negotiations, Senator Grassley said that the program was being used to import “cheap labor” into the United States.
“I believe that it would be a mistake to essentially renew the TN temporary worker visa category, without considering the broader implications for the current U.S. economy,” Grassley wrote, noting that at any given time, 100,000 or more TN visa holders are working in the U.S. “Unlike other high-skilled visa programs, like H-1B, there is no impact or labor analysis to determine the effect such visa recipients may have on American workers and industries.”
Despite the objections of Grassley and others, Trump’s negotiating team left the TN program untouched. (DeSantis has not commented on the TN program.) While Trump railed against chain migration and public-charge migrants from what he notoriously called “sh*thole countries,” his attitude toward guest-worker visas and legal immigration generally was considerably more schizophrenic. As a businessman, he made extensive use of the H-2B visa to import unskilled workers to toil in his resorts. And, in his 2019 State of the Union address, he said that he wanted to see people “come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
Perhaps this change of tone contributed to AMLO’s decision to make a rare trip outside Mexico—his first foreign venture in more than two years in office—to the White House in July 2020, a move seemingly designed to improve Trump’s standing with Latinos during the campaign. Trump called AMLO his “great friend, ” and AMLO said that had come to the U.S. to tell the American people “that your president has treated us with kindness and respect.” According to the Wall Street Journal, AMLO “even compared his good relationship with Mr. Trump with that of presidents Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez in the 19th century and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s.” In a blistering Sunday New York Times op-ed with the headline, “Mexico’s President is All in For Trump,” Enrique Krauze wrote that the meeting was “intended to bolster Mr. Trump’s campaign.” According to Pew Research, Trump’s performance with Latino voters did, in fact, improve by ten points from 2016 to 2020, though it obviously wasn’t enough. AMLO won’t be in office by 2024, but that doesn’t mean that he and his party don’t have a rooting interest in our election.
Given the alternatives, AMLO and his party seem to view Trump now as a friendly partner, one with whom they can do business. By contrast, DeSantis represents an unknown commodity, one who might prove more effective than the 45th president at stemming the tide of migrants at the border—a move that could cost Mexico tens of billions in lost remittances per year. Either way, AMLO’s remarks are akin to election interference, as a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico pointed out on Twitter. “So is it okay for Americans to urge Mexicans to vote a certain way?” tweeted Earl Anthony Wayne. Election interference or not, AMLO’s remarks could backfire. DeSantis would be wise to advertise AMLO’s non-endorsement of his campaign. Latinos and Americans of all stripes are tired of the dysfunctional status quo on immigration, and few on our side of the border believe that Mexico’s president has any interest in fixing it.
Photo by Luis Barron / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images