Cross-border families facing acute uncertainty

No me llames frijolero
No me llames frijolero

Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, concern over how this will affect Mexico has vaulted to the forefront of public debate on this side of the border.  We worry about all the new problems we (probably? maybe?) will have from topics on the table such as NAFTA repeal, mass deportations, the border wall, etc. We wring our hands publicly about the plight of Mexican migrants in the USA, but mostly we’re thinking about what will become of us here at home.  For this reason, we asked a colleague based in the United States to provide us some perspective from north of the border, particularly with regard to the impact on binational families such as his.  Journalist Steve Cannon lived in Mexico City for many years before moving to the United States with his family in 2016.  As a family including both U.S. and Mexico passport holders – of which there are many in both countries – the Cannons now face challenges and uncertainty that may not have seemed apparent before last November’s presidential election.  Mexico Business Blog greatly appreciates the thoughts that Steve has shared with us, which follow below.


Guest post by Steve Cannon

Incredulous was the reaction when I told people I was moving back to the U.S. last year.

With Trump looming, it seemed to be the worst time to move back north.

Now that we’re here, my wife and I are nervously trying to separate the flash and bang of daily announcements from what I would consider real, substantive changes that require revised life choices.

Filtering that information in the absence of clear and reliable information has created a great deal of uncertainty for ourselves and a lot of other people.

When the first executive order banning travelers from seven countries was released in January, we learned one Sunday afternoon that even permanent U.S. residents – green-card holders, a status my wife worked so hard to secure – were being refused entry to the U.S. The executive order was vague enough that immigration officers were interpreting the order in many different ways.

At that time, we were about 10 days away from a trip to visit friends and family in Mexico.

“Maybe we shouldn’t leave the country,” suggested my wife. “Will they let me back in?”

My family has built a life based on the idea that this last question should be absurd.

All this has left me addicted to searching for information and analysis of events that I understand is getting me nowhere and may end up being totally wrong. I shy away from reports that seem to be based on conventional wisdom, because it appears that so much has changed in the last month.

At the same time, even people who acknowledge the change that I see seem at a loss to know where it could go.

It’s not like businesses needed another excuse to lean on short-term thinking. U.S. companies have adopted a permanent state of uncertainty since the 2008 financial crisis, refusing to believe in the staying power of any recovery and shying away from all but the most necessary long-term investments.

Because of the daily barrage of tweets and confusion about proposed radical policy shifts, people are seeing a lifetime worth of assumptions vanish. Who would want to invest at a time like this?

And who would want to comment on it. Mexicans working in the U.S. who I spoke to for this blog post – I’m talking about long-established professionals – didn’t want to say anything publicly about what they see happening in the U.S.

In Mexico, this kind of uncertainty and careful reading of government regulations is a normal part of business. Government agencies make little pretense about transparency and the true motivation for policies often seems to be quite different from the publicly-stated justification.

In lieu of transparent public information, Mexico has an army of consultants and tealeaf readers to guide what should be clear investment decisions.

Despite just telling you that I feel a bit lost in trying to understand the new U.S.-Mexico environment in 2017, I’m going to give you my impressions about what is in the near-term future of U.S. and Mexico economic relations.

In the near future, Trump will continue to provoke Mexico with insulting/ threatening tweets, while turning around and holding “cordial” and “productive” meetings that go nowhere with whatever Mexican official or politician who thinks they can squeeze some news coverage and a public profile bounce from video of them scowling or looking gravely in Trump’s direction.

Not much will get decided because the administration is chiefly concerned with the publicity side of relations with Mexico. Formal changes to NAFTA are bound to annoy some businessman who might be at the next table over at the Mar-a-Lago.

It’s much easier to make threatening tweets that can be smoothed over later or simply discarded after an audience with Trump or one of his surrogates.

If news outlets find any space to talk about Mexico in terms of anything other than immigration, they won’t be breaking down different proposals for NAFTA reform. Documented changes to NAFTA would take too long, use too much political capital and bring no significant political gain. Instead, we’ll all spend time reacting to bizarre, misguided tweets or cryptic rule changes from the commerce department – assuming that department still exists in a year.

But part of the problem is that for much of what is coming out of this administration, flash and bang IS the significant change. There are no substantive changes forthcoming – that’s not the point.

Some of the departments that are part of our normal understanding of the U.S. government functioning are just going to wither on the vine for the next few years. It’s not that the State Department will be eliminated, it is just being made irrelevant to policy decisions.

More likely, the U.S. will begin to selectively ignore provisions of NAFTA trade rules and then have Trump and other spokespeople complain about Mexico’s stonewalling on real changes. Mexican officials will make threats about responding, but will take no more than symbolic action.

So, I guess that means that all this is just talk, right?

Of course, if you’re following the news from this new administration – and I know you are, because there’s nothing else on – you’ve seen that substantive changes in trade policy have already begun. I won’t waste your time analyzing those changes, which can be learned about from much better observers, starting with the regular author of this blog.

What I am preparing for is continued upending of everything I’ve grown to expect from relations between the U.S. and Mexico. My wife and I talk about the changes and even our kids have picked up on the uncertainty in our voices.

One prediction I’m sure of: one day in the next week, I’ll hear my daughter respectfully ask as I bring her to school, “Why did we move to here again?”

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