MEXICO CITY — The bustling streets in the middle of Mexico’s Federal District, home to more than 20 million residents, are surprisingly clean for one of the most polluted cities in the world. Near the Plaza de la Ciudadela, in the southwest corner of Mexico City’s historic center, tourists and locals alike browse through artisanal works, delicious street food, and Spanish-language vinyl records from artists from the seminal salsa band Fania All-Stars to the Bee Gees, while municipal workers pick up trash and sweep the gutters.
Business is booming, the streets are alive. But Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric on international relations and trade, wall and all—including the freshly immortalized meme from Wednesday’s debate: “bad hombres”—could be a threat.
Economic analysts and academics are saying that, already, part of Mexico’s current economic woes can be attributed to Trump’s anti-free-trade rhetoric, which could motivate Mexicans to start heading north.
It seems that normal non-bad-hombre Mexicans agree.
“What do you think of the election, eh? Trump, he’s got problems,” Miguel Hernandez, a short man in his early forties with a face somewhere between your favorite uncle’s and a car salesman, who sells folk art in one of 350 shops inside the Mercado Artesanias La Ciudadela, told The Daily Beast.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t want us there,” Hernandez continued, grinning slyly, “but if he keeps it up, I may have to go back.”
The vendor spent about six years in California as an undocumented worker. He still has family there. But he came back to Mexico two years ago.
“It was a few things,” Hernandez responded when asked what motivated him. “I could say it was the racism or the fear of being deported, and that’s partly true. But really, my work options [in the U.S.] weren’t much better than here.”
Hernandez, who worked as an off-the-books day laborer in California, isn’t alone in his assessment.
In spite of the inflammatory rhetoric from the Trump campaign this election season, Mexican immigration has declined since the Great Recession started, according to the Pew Research Center.
From 2009 to 2014, the U.S. saw a net loss of 147,000 Mexicans, the study says.
According to data from the Mexican government, roughly 1 million Mexicans (including their U.S.-born children) returned of their own accord.
There are a number of reasons cited for the million-Mexican march out of the U.S.
For starters, the slow economic recovery after the Great Recession may have cut into the number of jobs available. “I self-deported, like Romney wanted!” Hernandez said with a smile, referencing former 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s highly ridiculed plan to encourage undocumented migrants to leave.
Hernandez said he knows other Mexicans who chose to leave, too. Jobs in Mexican car manufacturing plants, made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which united Canada, the U.S., and Mexico in a trilateral trade block in 1994, were a big drawing point for the returnees, Hernandez continued.
Trump has repeatedly derided U.S. automakers for moving jobs to Mexico as part of NAFTA. While this has occurred, and cities like Detroit and Flint, Michigan, have certainly suffered from the impact, the spread of opportunity across borders has worked to accomplish Trump’s nominal goal of reducing the number (if not deporting all) undocumented migrants.
Paradoxically, as with many aspects of his campaign, Trump has called for NAFTA to be “torn up” until a new deal can be reached. “Mexico is smart; they have out-negotiated us to a fare-thee-well,” the candidate said.
While Mexico’s economy grew at a healthy rate of 2.5 percent from 2015 to the early part of 2016, it is expected to see a 0.5 percent drop by the end of the year, according to the World Bank.
How much of that is because of Trump? Impossible to say directly. Certainly some of it is due to falling oil prices and weakened currency. But UBS Global Research recently noted that “the market is also now focused on the risk that the U.S. elections will result in a greater degree of trade protectionism that would directly impact Mexico.”
Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics, told Univison-owned news network Fusion that investors are being cautious due to the resulting risk from Trump’s candidacy, and that’s driving down the peso, a big factor in Mexico’s current economic decline.
“I think the pressure on the peso is going to be there until November 8, and the currency will probably depreciate more as election night draws near,” Coutiño said.
Jagdish Bhagwati, a celebrated professor of economics and law at Columbia University and champion of free trade economics, faults Clinton as well as Trump.
“This election is crazy,” Bhagwati, an emphatic Democrat, told The Daily Beast. “What Trump is saying is worrying, but you can’t give Clinton a pass.”
Emails recently released by WikiLeaks document Clinton’s previously positive stance toward free trade. At a meeting with Brazilian bankers in 2013, she said her dream was “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.”
But to confront the insurgent campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton began taking a populist stance toward trade deals somewhat similar to Trump’s.
“It’s not just that,” Bhagwati said. “It goes back to her husband. He built some of the border wall, and she voted for 700 miles of ‘border security’ in 2006. You think that doesn’t affect the Mexican economy?”
Back at the market, Hernandez said he doesn’t plan on going back north, even if the Mexican economy declines. “Life is good here. I feel at home. There are a lot of problems but it’s getting better in many ways. I know many people who have come back. Hopefully we can continue making improvements for everyone.
“Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Hernandez concluded.
In 2013, China overtook Mexico in the number of immigrants sent to the U.S., according to a study published on the Census Bureau website, although the results aren’t universally accepted.
If Trump had been informed, perhaps he would have campaigned on surrounding the country with, ahem, a Great Wall.