By Nahal Toosi
May 13, 2016
Donald Trump has spent his entire presidential campaign warning against the dangers of Mexican immigrants stealing American jobs, raping women and hauling drugs across the border.
Now, Mexico is fighting back.
Mexican officials are pursuing a counteroffensive to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, reaching out to U.S. business leaders, looking at ways to better use social media, and even encouraging qualified Mexicans to get U.S. citizenship. But they’re also trying to stay sensitive about taking more high-profile steps, such as running TV ads in an already overheated presidential race that promote Mexico as a friendly, vibrant neighbor and not a cesspool of criminals.
"We think that right now, in this phase where there is an electoral process going on, something that we should really do is stay out of it. An advertising campaign at this particular moment could just add confusion," José Paulo Carreño King, Mexico's new undersecretary for North America, said in an interview with POLITICO.
Carreño said the decision that Mexico needs to boost its image came after the country, which was being pummeled by Trump but trying to stay restrained, commissioned a series of polls and focus groups in the U.S. late last year.
"What we found out is, again, that the image in general terms of Mexico was quite undervalued or more specifically out of date," he said. "The image of the contributions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans was damaged and undervalued. And there was no clear image of the importance of the bilateral relationship. That’s when the Mexican government decided that, again, we need to do something."
There are several public signs of a shift in Mexico’s posture toward Trump, a man many in the Latin American country call "El Payaso" — "The Clown."
The Mexican embassy in Washington on Thursday issued a sharp statement announcing that Carlos Sada Solana had assumed his role as the country’s new ambassador to the United States and that his “clear and precise” mandate is to defend the interests of Mexico and Mexicans.
In what appeared to be a swipe at the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the statement went on to say that the new envoy “recognized the need to reposition the image of Mexico in the United States in its just and rightful place.”
For nearly a year, Mexican officials have chafed at Trump’s inflammatory comments, including his pledges to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to build a “great, great wall” along the southern border — and to have Mexico pay for it. Just last week, Trump drew scorn when he tweeted "I love Hispanics!" along with a photo of himself eating a "taco bowl" on Cinco de Mayo.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, breaking with the diplomatic tradition of avoiding comment on another country's internal politics, has slammed Trump's "strident" tone and compared his rise to that of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
While U.S. lawmakers from southern border states have been trying to reassure their Mexican counterparts (mindful of Mexico's enormous importance to U.S. trade) officials on both sides of the boundary line feel they now need to take greater action to counter Trump.
Carreño outlined to POLITICO a multi-layered initiative to burnish Mexico's image. The plans, some of which are already launched, include greater use of traditional and social media, increased cultural outreach through Mexican consulates, and strengthened ties to American business and civil society groups.
The new undersecretary landed in his current position just weeks ago as part of a major Mexican leadership shakeup in apparent response to the Trump phenomenon. Around half of the consuls general at Mexico's 50 U.S. consulates were reshuffled or replaced. The government also named Sada as the new Mexican ambassador.
Carreño, who has an extensive communications background, pointed out that educational campaigns about U.S.-Mexico relations aren't new. In the 1990s, when U.S., Canadian and Mexican leaders were promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement (a pact Trump despises), similar efforts helped sell the deal, he said.
Many of the details are still being worked out this time around. Activities promoted by the consulates could include promoting Mexican art and Mexican cuisine, he said. Meantime, Mexican officials are more actively reaching out to U.S. leaders through numerous channels, including grassroots activists and trade organizations, to emphasize the importance of America's third-largest trading partner.
Already, advocacy groups are pushing Mexicans with legal permanent residency in the United States to obtain U.S. citizenship and register to vote in this year's elections. Mexican consulates have also been promoting U.S. citizenship workshops, though the official government line is that it is not an attempt to influence the election.
Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, said Mexicans are stunned to find themselves "the centerpiece of a nativist rhetoric that basically holds them as symbols of all that is wrong with our immigration policy, with our trade policy."
"Do they feel ransacked? Absolutely. Do they feel this has come out of nowhere? Absolutely. Do they feel that not enough Americans stood up and try to counter-punch and try to explain what the realities of the relationship are? Yes," said Schechter, who has extensive contacts in the Mexican government.
The Trump-inspired focus on the U.S.-Mexico relationship has led to some uncomfortable moments for U.S. lawmakers from border areas who often deal with Mexican leaders. Some have tried to calm nervous questioners about the limits of what Trump could do if elected.
"I say that the U.S. government is bigger than just one person, and there are a lot of folks, and Congress is an equal branch of government," said Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district runs some 800 miles along the border.
But many in Mexico, as well Americans with family on both sides of the border, wonder if there are deeper issues at play.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat who represents the major Texas border town of El Paso, said one Mexican lawmaker told him that "what’s alarming is not necessarily what Donald Trump is saying. What’s alarming is that Donald Trump is saying this, and it is resonating with a significant number of Americans."
O'Rourke and Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela, another Texan, are trying to organize a large-scale visit of border-area leaders to Congress, modeled along what the American Israel Public Affairs Committee does when it takes its activists to the Hill.
The event might not happen before the presidential election, but Vela and O'Rourke said it could go a long way to helping educate their fellow legislators on basic facts about the border and U.S.-Mexico relations, such as how 6 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico, and how towns such as El Paso are among the safest in the country.
Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar said in his conversations with Mexican leaders it's clear that they want to present a more up-to-date, positive image of their country to Americans.
He's suggested they can't be too subtle about it.
"I just basically said nobody has the bully pulpit like Trump does," the Democrat said, adding, "I told them to make sure that they work with members of Congress. If he becomes president, you gotta have friends."
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com