Newsweek’s Alex Rouhandeh interviewed Christopher Landau on Monday. Landau was the ambassador to Mexico from 2019-2021 during the Trump administration. Following are excerpts from that interview.
NEWSWEEK: I know you’re a student of history, having majored in the discipline at Harvard. Can you tell me what effect the desire for Latin American citizens to migrate to the U.S. for economic opportunities has had on Mexico’s relationship with the United States?
LANDAU: The United States has obviously long been a destination for immigrants from all over the world. So many Americans, myself included, trace our roots to immigrants. My parents were both immigrants to the United States. And it’s a society that has a strong pull in the rest of the world because of our economic opportunities and our open society. And it has historically had a strong pull in Mexico as the neighboring country, where wages are a lot lower than in the United States.
Just looking at historical patterns, Mexican migration reached a peak in the ’90s and 2000s. It began to decline in the last 10 years or so. So, the word on the street is that there was a net outflow of Mexicans from the United States back to Mexico in recent years. But that is, I think, going to come to an end with the economic crisis in Mexico itself, caused by COVID.
NEWSWEEK: You’ve described economic opportunities in the United States as being a “pull factor” for Central American migration and issues such as violence and corruption being “push factors.” Why do you believe the “pull” is more significant than the “push” when it comes to illegal immigration?
LANDAU: I think, ultimately, the United States is making a terrible mistake by thinking that the answer for our country lies in trying to fix other countries. We don’t have a great track record in terms of nation building. I think a lot of these countries have very deeply rooted social problems.
I don’t have a problem with trying to come up with programs to help them increase economic opportunities in their countries. But I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that this is going to be an answer to the migration crisis we’re facing here now…I think that they have problems, and it seems to me, the answer is much closer to home. I don’t see how we can’t get our own employers to stop hiring people illegally.
NEWSWEEK: Looking at what the U.S. can do to address the issue, you’ve stated in the past that neither major political party have made serious efforts to implement mandatory E-Verify checks or to direct bureaucratic institutions to crack down on illegal employment. What do you see as kind of the root causes for this lack of action from both sides of the political spectrum?
LANDAU: I think there are political pressures that affect people on the right and the left, and I think there are people in this country who benefit from cheap, illegal migration, a lot of it is corporations. I mean, look at who has defeated bills for mandatory E-Verify in the past. It’s often been, I’m afraid, an unholy alliance between the Chamber of Commerce on the one hand and liberal groups on the other hand.
That’s very unfortunate because E-Verify seems like such an obvious step. The system already exists, and E-Verify exists; it works. It’s just not mandatory for all employers. So really the only way to enforce our laws is to be bringing lawsuits after the fact. E-Verify is good, because it’s kind of automatic as a default tool.
NEWSWEEK It seems the potential for undocumented immigrant workers to be exploited gets lost in these types of conversations. Could you speak more about how the illegal employment of these workers can result in their exploitation?
LANDAU: Right now, I’m afraid we are incentivizing people to come here illegally, which is, I think, a terrible humanitarian tragedy during the route here. I think people don’t often understand that a lot of times very poor people are paying what little money they have to very bad people, human smugglers…And, again, I just think, why on earth would we as a country want to incentivize a system that just empowers the bad guys to be smuggling people here illegally?
I think we need to have an orderly system where people get in, they can apply to come here to work, employers can apply for foreign workers if they can show they can’t find American workers in certain industries.
We have mechanisms in place like the H-2A and H-2B visas in order to allow foreigners to work here. One of the things that I wanted to do as ambassador, unfortunately the pandemic threw a curveball at all of us, is to streamline the process for bringing in people legally.
But right now, the incentives are really to come illegally because if you have two employers, two competitors, and one is hiring illegals, and the other one is hiring legally, well, there’s a huge competitive disadvantage. You have to jump through all these bureaucratic hoops to get the legal workers.
And I think a lot of employers say, “Well, what the heck, why should I bother to comply with the law if my competitor down the road here is hiring illegals and getting away with it?” So, I just find it somewhat baffling that we are kind of looking to other countries to solve our migration problems for us. We’re not actually doing the most basic measures we could do here to address what is enticing these people to come to our country.
NEWSWEEK: The power of these cartels is so immense that it seems like an issue that is hard for Americans to truly comprehend. Looking at some of those pull factors again, the “pull” of the world’s largest market for illegal drugs—the United States—seems to be a major factor in the sustained power of these cartels. What do you think is the best way for the United States to limit the economic power of these cartels? Does that involve decriminalizing drugs?
LANDAU: I don’t claim to be an expert on this. But I just can’t imagine that that’s not a critical component to bringing this down. I was just watching the little clip which showed a news report from 2014 that talked about the record number of overdose deaths in the country that year, more than ever before in history, 40 something thousand overdose deaths that year. And now last year, the CDC estimates that there were over 80,000. This is a huge, huge problem for our country. And again, I feel a little bit like we as a country are maybe a little bit in denial.
It seems we kind of think that the root of the problem lies elsewhere and that the way to fix it, whether it’s migration or drugs, is to get tough with Mexico and other countries. I’m not saying that that’s not part of it. But at the end of the day, we have to look inwards and say, “What do we actually have control over as the US government?” Because, if we’re asking other countries to do our work for us, I don’t see that as a recipe for success.
NEWSWEEK: This is such a complex and multifaceted problem. It’s fruitless to try and touch on all aspects of it in an hour-long conversation. With that said, is there anything else you would like to include that I did not ask?
Landau: I think one thing that came out in this discussion that I think is very helpful and important, that was very clear to me as ambassador to Mexico, is just that there are real parallels between the migration situation and the drug situation. I just think in both cases, before we start throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into other countries, I think we are likely to be more successful if we figure out what we can do on our own side.
I feel that way equally with drugs and with migration. It’s kind of a basic sovereignty point. Every nation is sovereign within its own territory. So, before we start to try to figure out what has to be done in Honduras or Mexico, where the governments of those countries are going to be in the driver’s seat, let’s try to figure out ways that we can do things that we don’t have to get the approval of somebody else who may not be on the same wavelength.