If Trump wants a strong border, he needs to start playing nice with Mexico

Target practice.
Target practice.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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For a look at the effect of the Trump presidency on the US’s international standing, look no farther than Mexico. Mexicans’ opinions of their northern neighbor are at their lowest point in years, according to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday (Sept. 14.)

They have an even dimmer view of president Donald Trump: more than 90% of poll respondents don’t trust the current White House occupant as a world leader.

The US’s nose-diving popularity in Mexico is hardly surprising given Trump’s repeated insults towards that country. (Recently, Trump initially ignored Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s offer to help Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey; a few days later, when Mexico was reeling from its own natural disaster, a devastating earthquake, Trump didn’t bother to call with condolences.)

But just as Trump is having an effect on Mexican public opinion, Mexican public opinion will have an effect on his administration. Though the US president may choose to ignore it—or is simply not aware—Mexico plays a key role in protecting the US border, one of Trump’s top priorities. Without its cooperation, expect to see illegal immigration and drug trafficking into the US rise, denting Trump’s already low approval ratings in the US.

Mexico effectively serves as a giant barrier to migrants from further south. In 2014, Mexican authorities rapidly helped curb a wave of Central American immigrants headed to the US by intercepting them before they reached the Rio Grande.

The US and Mexican governments have also been working together to go after the drug cartels shattering communities on both sides of the border. Earlier this year, Mexico handed over drug-cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán only a year after his capture in what amounts to an express extradition.

The more Trump taunts Mexico, the more difficult it is for its government to keep providing that kind of help. His disparaging remarks are stirring up Mexicans’ deep-rooted resentment against the US. For much of their history, US-Mexico relations have been strained, if not downright hostile. (Exhibit A: The 1846 American invasion of Mexico, which resulted in the loss of half of its territory.) The North American Free Trade Agreement, which made both countries equal partners, helped reset the binational relationship on better terms. It’s no coincidence that old animosity is resurfacing now that Trump is threatening to rip up the deal.

So far, Peña Nieto has resisted calls to respond Trump’s tirades in kind, and maintained a calm and conciliatory tone. Mexico has much to lose from a bad break-up with the US—including $290 billion in exports a year. But Peña Nieto, who’s already in hot water with voters for a variety of other reasons, has little political wiggle room. His own approval ratings are lower than Trump’s.

At some point, he might just have to cede to Mexicans’ outrage by giving it voice.