How Should Mexico Respond to Donald Trump?

The Mexican government “has maintained an unjustifiable distance” from the debate over the candidate’s immigration policy, one journalist says.

A pinata of Donald Trump in Reynosa, Mexico (Daniel Becerril / Reuters)

On Friday, Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, made news by commenting on a matter he’d until then remained silent about: Donald Trump.

“Some have hoped for the president to take a position on what Trump has said. The government … fully discredits and condemns any expression of a discriminatory character and [any expression] that specifically hurts Mexicans,” he told the Mexican website SDPnoticias, echoing his foreign minister, who days earlier had denounced the Republican presidential candidate’s “ignorance and disdain” toward Mexico and Mexicans.

But Pena Nieto was also hesitant to get involved in the early stages of a U.S. election campaign. Trump’s comments are “very unfortunate, but I don’t want to contribute to or make the fat broth for [a delightful idiom meaning ‘make things easy for’] someone who is just vying to become a candidate,” he said.

The remarks captured the struggle among Mexican officials in recent months to respond to a formidable contender for the U.S. presidency who has accused the Mexican government of flooding the United States with rapists, criminals, and drug traffickers; declared that Mexico, at the behest of a President Trump, would fund the completion of a 2,000-mile-long wall along the U.S. border, at a cost of billions of dollars; proposed mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, including millions of Mexicans, from the U.S.; claimed that the Mexican government “is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning” than the U.S. government on immigration policy, and that “Mexico is taking our business. Mexico is the new China”; and generally made immigration and Mexico the centerpiece of his campaign.

In a column for the Mexican paper El Universal—titled “Who Defends Mexicans?” and published shortly before Pena Nieto commented on TrumpLeon Krauze, a Mexican journalist and anchor for Univision in Los Angeles, criticized this very ambivalence in Mexican officialdom. Krauze lamented the “absolute lack of figures, in the political sphere, who are taking responsibility for defending with hard data the virtuoso role of immigrants in the United States,” and argued that “the Mexican government has maintained an unjustifiable distance” from the debate over Trump’s immigration policies. He continued:

Someone sold [Mexican officials] the idea that they should not get involved in U.S. politics because it is a matter of internal politics and risks hurting feelings (as if Trump or other racist Republicans give a damn about our feelings … anyway). Moreover, the Mexican government should know that in U.S. history there are admirable antecedents of countries that have publicly defended their immigrants in the United States. Italy did it in the late 19th century.

(In 1891, in an extreme example of the kind of defense Krauze is referring to, the Italian government broke off diplomatic relations with the United States for a year after a mob in New Orleans murdered 11 ethnic Italians at a prison, in retaliation for the killing of a police chief; a New York Times editorial at the time observed that “orderly and law-abiding persons will not pretend that the butchery of the Italians was either ‘justifiable or proper,’” only to add that the victims, “[t]hese sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations.”)

In his column, Krauze praised Miguel Basanez, Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States, for stating during an appearance before the Mexican Senate in late August that Trump should apologize to Mexicans for his comments. That appearance in itself was a case study in how Mexican officials are grappling with the Republican frontrunner. Basanez reportedly challenged the idea that “the president, the foreign minister, and the ambassador should climb into the ring, and begin to punch [fittingly, trompear in Spanish] with Trump,” asserting that doing so might elevate Trump to a level of political seriousness he hasn’t yet attained. But during the same session, Senator Gabriela Cuevas argued for the opposite approach:

To think that a campaign of hate, of xenophobia, of misogyny, of intolerance, is the one that today has the loudest voice in the United States is surprising. …

Mexico too has to speak out, because you do not want to build a reputation based on lies and based on discrediting a country that is the third-largest trading partner of the United States.

As a journalist who covers U.S. politics and speaks to audiences in Mexico and the United States, Krauze has a unique perspective on Trump and his positions on immigration. I asked him whether he sees differences between how Mexicans and Mexican Americans are assessing the businessman’s candidacy.

“People in Mexico are too far removed from the struggle of the Hispanic community and the electoral process in the United States for them to have an opinion beyond basic anger,” he told me by email. “But it’s not personal for them. Our audience’s reaction [at Univision], on the other hand, has been furious. You have to keep in mind that Trump didn’t just condemn illegal immigration; he questioned the moral bearings of undocumented immigrants! Not only that: He clumsily suggested that the Mexican government sends immigrants here. And that just added insult to injury for these fiercely independent people.”

Was Krauze impressed by Pena Nieto’s recent comments on Trump?

“Something is better than nothing, but only slightly better,” he said. “My point has always been that Mexico’s government could have set an important precedent on civilized political discourse. It was not an argument for confrontation, but rather [for] information. ... Pena’s administration didn’t have to fight Trump; it merely had to set the record straight with plain and simple facts.” Among these, Krauze added, is the lack of evidence that immigration increases violent crime in U.S. cities and the fact that net Mexican migration to the United States now appears to be negative, meaning more people are returning to Mexico than crossing into the U.S.

I asked Krauze about another recent Trump-related column of his in which he’d explored a persistent “duality” in American society: that the United States is inconceivable as a country without immigrants, and yet throughout U.S. history segments of society have viewed successive waves of immigrants with deep suspicion. How did Krauze explain this seeming paradox?

“That duality is as old as the country itself,” he responded. “The history of nativism in America goes back to the first few years of the country’s founding. The same can be said of the country’s appeal to—and need for—immigrants. It really is a unique place that was built with a voracious sense of urgency. Geographical expansion was so grand that immigration was indispensable. But immigrants bring their own set of customs and expectations. And that has almost always generated a reaction not unlike what we’re seeing now. Thing is, every community that has been subjected to nativist rejection has then gone on to assimilate and add its talents to the country’s social fabric. The same thing has been happening with Hispanics and will happen even more in the coming years. To suggest otherwise is as ignorant now as it was when Mr. Trump’s grandfather arrived in America as part of the massive German immigrant wave of the second half of the 19th century.”

As for the question Krauze posed about who will protect Mexicans in the United States, the journalist believes the best defense may reside in America, not Mexico—and specifically that it involves recruiting more Mexican Americans to participate in U.S. politics and run for office.

“It is not easy to have political influence without influential politicians,” he wrote in his El Universal column on preventing discrimination against Mexicans. “The Mexican government—but also Mexican businesspeople—should realize the importance of having real allies in Washington”—the kind of allies, he added, addressing his Mexican audience, “who defend what is ours and what is yours (which is often the same).”