Under President Donald Trump, the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. fell. But now, under President Joe Biden, that progress has been reversed and record numbers of migrants are making their way across the border illegally.
To Christopher Landau, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, this didn’t have to be the case.
“I’m not sure I would say that Biden has a vision about the relationship with Mexico. To be honest with you, I think he just doesn’t want to do what Trump did,” Landau says.
“Biden and a lot of people in his party spent four years saying that Trump was literally Hitler and that these were terrible border policies,” the former ambassador adds. “And so on Day One, they came in with a lot of activists who had been the ones screaming the loudest against Trump and [issued] all kinds of orders, executive orders that basically loosened control over the border. And not surprisingly, that immediately led to a huge wave of people.”
Landau joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his tenure representing America abroad, and how we can fix the ongoing crisis in border security.
We also cover these stories:
- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., says he won’t support a Biden nominee for a top position at the Federal Reserve.
- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduces an amendment to reorganize Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy plans to speak to the U.S. Congress in a virtual address.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Douglas Blair: My guest today is Christopher Landau, United States ambassador to Mexico under former President Donald Trump. Ambassador, welcome to the show.
Ambassador Christopher Landau: It’s terrific to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Doug.
Blair: Absolutely. Glad to have you. We are looking at a very different relationship with Mexico than we had under President Trump, but what would you say the status of that relationship is right now?
Landau: I’d say it’s very troubled. Certainly, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is a complicated one. We have a 2,000-mile border, we have some real challenges that have been there for decades. During the Trump administration, we managed to get under control at least one of the vexing issues, which is migration.
And one of the phenomena that has occurred in recent decades that I think a lot of people haven’t focused on is that the migration issue has changed.
Traditionally, it was young, single, male Mexicans who were coming to the United States, and the system was created for us to have procedures that allowed us to adjudicate those cases, deport them if necessary, and it wasn’t perfect but it was at least a workable system.
What’s happened in the last few years, Doug, is that the migration issue has changed. In 2019, the year I arrived as ambassador for the first time, non-Mexicans outnumbered Mexicans trying to enter the United States illegally across the southern border. And you have people from Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador in particular—but actually people from all over the world, China, India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Haiti.
So I think we need to realize now in the 21st century that the southern border is a problem that is really a global problem, and is one where, hopefully, we can find some common ground with Mexico to work on fixing because they don’t have an interest in being a doormat for everybody in the world to try to come into the United States through our back door illegally.
Blair: Absolutely. That is an interesting point, that Mexico has a stake in this as well, that they don’t want to be the doormat for all these different people to come in and be like, “Hey, I’m stopping by and then I’m going to sneak into America.” How has that affected them? What is their response to it?
Landau: Well, I think a popular opinion in Mexico is against uncontrolled migration, as you might expect. No country likes to see caravans of people moving through their territory without any kind of control or without abiding by their own laws. Mexico is very conscientious of its own national sovereignty and has always required passports and requires border controls and has immigration laws, too.
And what’s amazing is that some of the elite in Mexico, just like the elite here, I think are kind of out of touch in our country, talk about, “Well, there’s a human right to migration.” And I say, what on earth does that mean? Does that mean that you think that anybody can just go to any other country whenever they feel like it and live there or even travel there?
No. Ever since the rise of the nation-state centuries ago, one of the fundamental attributes of sovereignty is the ability to control your borders and decide who comes in and who doesn’t come in, and that is particularly important at a time like the pandemic.
We realize that it’s critical for nations for their survival to have control over their borders. Most countries in the world during the pandemic closed their borders to one degree or another.
So I think the idea that there is a human right to just travel and go live everywhere—if somebody says, “Well, I feel like I was born a Frenchman trapped inside an American’s body,” that doesn’t give you the right to go live in Paris if you feel like it. The French government has to say yes.
And again, I think it’s important, Doug, to understand that we have to put the right incentives in place to control this.
These are people, most of whom want to come to the United States for the same reason that a lot of our own ancestors wanted to come to the United States, they want to come for a better life for themselves or their children. I don’t begrudge them that, but they have to come legally for their own protection.
I mean, we have laws in this country that actually protect people. We have [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] laws in factories, we have minimum wage laws, Social Security. We have all this incredibly complex edifice of laws and regulations. Well, guess what? When people are illegal, they really don’t get the benefit of those laws.
So I think it’s a big problem to create incentives for people to come in illegally as opposed to figuring out what we as a country, who we want in our country and who we need, what’s the labor we can use, and then creating systems to make that work efficiently.
Blair: Now we are, like I said at the beginning, we are in the midst of two different administrations within a couple of years, so Trump had one vision of how our relationship with Mexico should look and [President Joe] Biden has another. How does the Mexican leadership respond to Biden’s leadership and how did they respond to Trump’s leadership?
Landau: Well, again, I’m not sure I would say that Biden has a vision about the relationship with Mexico. To be honest with you, I think he just doesn’t want to do what Trump did. I mean, Biden and a lot of people in his party spent four years saying that Trump was literally Hitler and that these were terrible border policies.
And so on Day One, they came in, frankly, with a lot of activists who had been the ones screaming the loudest against Trump and passed all kinds of orders, executive orders that basically loosened control over the border. And not surprisingly, that immediately led to a huge wave of people.
Again, people are not economically irrational. If you’re sitting in Central America—and again, there’s a lot of poverty there, I don’t deny that, and throughout the world. I mean, there’s 7 billion people in the world. A lot of those people would be delighted to come to the United States if they could.
But again, we have a system that says you can’t do that. So people are figuring out, “Well, what are my odds?” In order to get to the United States, you have to pay a lot of money. A lot of times, people are paying money they don’t have. They basically go into indentured servitude.
There’s kind of a myth, I think, that these people just wake up one day and say, “Well, I’m going to go to the United States,” and then on their own just start going there. No, there are networks where they pay human smugglers and traffickers to do this. I mean, this is a very sophisticated operation, unfortunately controlled by criminal groups.
But before you spend that kind of money and subject yourself to this kind of violence, because these are not nice people who are involved in this human trafficking business across Mexico, before you do that, you figure out, “What are my odds getting into Mexico? What are my odds of getting across Mexico safely? What are my odds of getting into the United States?”
When either the U.S. or Mexico moves the dial, the incentives change, and Biden radically changed the incentives. And again, I was starting to say, the composition of who is coming has changed.
It used to be single adult Mexicans and now we see a lot of family units because people heard that there were decisions that if you came as a family, they couldn’t separate your family. There are children who are basically being used at the border almost as a talisman to get across magically, and then they’re just shuffled back.
I mean, they did genetic tests and a decent percentage, I can’t remember if it was 40% or something like that, of the people were not related to the purported children that they had with them. Again, we have to remove the incentives for people to game the system like this, and again, you want to come up with a system that deters people from this in the first place.
One of the big loopholes has been the asylum system. We passed asylum laws after World War II, after the experience of what had happened in Europe.
And my own family fled Europe in World War II. My father couldn’t get an American visa originally so he went to Colombia in South America. He was fortunate to get that but he wanted to come to the United States and he eventually did during the war and became an American citizen.
So after the war, we passed these laws granting asylum or creating a privilege of asylum for people who could show a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of certain characteristics—on the basis of their politics, of their religion, their race. But these are situations where governments in other countries are persecuting people on the basis of these characteristics.
So the law of asylum is actually fine. The problem is the people enforcing it. The immigration judges and the federal judges who’ve looked at the statute have departed from the language of the statute and started to say, “Well, people who fear violence can seek asylum.” And the Biden administration said, “If you have domestic violence.”
… Obviously, nobody’s in favor of domestic violence, but once you start saying that anybody who claims domestic violence has an asylum claim, that means you need an individualized adjudication, right? That’s not something you can say, like, there’s a Hitler in Honduras who’s persecuting this group based on their religion or their race or whatever it is that you can look at and you can apply and administer that program across the board.
Once you require individualized adjudications for, does somebody actually have a fear of, let’s say, violence—whether it be domestic or from a gang or something like that—then you need, basically, an individualized trial.
Well, guess what? What do you do when 400,000 people show up in a month claiming asylum? Well, what happens, just so people know this, is that we do “catch and release.” So we let all these people out into our country and say, “We’ll, see you in two or three years and have fun in the United States in the meantime. And please show up, by the way, at this date three years from now.”
So obviously, then that creates a vicious circle where the more people hear about, “Hey, this is a ‘get into the United States for free’ card,” the more they come, and then the more the system gets overwhelmed and backlogged.
Blair: It reminds me a lot of the switch between the “Remain in Mexico” policy under President Trump and the Remain in Mexico policy under President Biden, which is to say the nonexistence of the Remain in Mexico policy under President Biden.
How does Mexico respond to that, where they see that one president was doing this thing and that the other president doesn’t really seem to think that Remain in Mexico was a good policy?
Landau: … Initially, let me say this, when [Mexican President Andrés Manuel] López Obrador came in in 2018, so he came in in the middle of President Trump’s term, and he has a left-wing government in Mexico and some of his team started saying, particularly to the Central Americans, “Hey, Central American brothers and sisters, we’ll welcome you with open arms in Mexico. Feel free to come.” So they came.
Again, going back to what I said before about Mexico or the United States can move the dial and it’ll have massive consequences in Central America. That’s when you started to see these caravans forming because, all of a sudden, these people decided, “Well, Mexico has made it easy for us.” And so you started to see at the U.S. border caravans of thousands of people showing up.
In May of 2019, the height of this, 140,000 people were detained. Unfortunately, we don’t have statistics in our country about how many people get in illegally. All we have are statistics about how many people are detained, which, in a sense, doesn’t really tell you anything about how many are getting through. It could mean that you have a 90% detention rate, it could be that you have a 10% detention rate. So these are very imperfect statistics and I think a lot of times, people seize on them.
But going back to your question—so at that point, President Trump said to Mexico, “Look, you guys, you’ve created this problem. You’re free, you’re a sovereign country. You’re free to tell people, ‘Come into our country,’ but look what’s going on. They’re not coming to stay in Mexico. These people are coming to use your country as a doormat to come to our country. So we have a problem with this and you’ve created that problem, Mexico. Now, you’ve got to solve that problem.”
This was really historic. This was really the first time in its history that Mexico really started cracking down on a massive scale on these third-country migrations. Again, it’s a relatively new phenomenon, but I think it’s important and I think it’s going to set an important precedent for what happens in the future.
And so, basically, during the Trump administration, after this incident in the spring of 2019, President Trump threatened to put tariffs on Mexico. So he got their attention very quickly. And with President Trump, they knew he wasn’t bluffing. They knew if he said this, he was going to do it, and they knew he really cared about this issue. And so they agreed to enforce their own immigration laws. Again, they’re not doing us a favor. They’re enforcing their own laws.
And so during the time I was ambassador there in the last half of the Trump administration, after this whole incident, it was pretty smooth sailing on migration and the Mexicans were happy because they saw that these policies had significant deterrent effects.
Again, it’s not in Mexico’s interest to have caravans of ragtag people from all over the world coming across their country, and people who hadn’t been vaccinated or anything like that coming across illegally, and so Mexico, I think that they were perfectly happy with the situation.
When Biden comes in and reverses a lot of the Trump policies, all of a sudden we’re seeing massive amounts of people trying to cross the border. It becomes a huge magnet. And I think at that point, the Mexicans are saying, they throw up their hands and say, “Look, we had a good system here. It was working. Now, you guys, the Americans, don’t come to us asking us to solve your problem because you created the problem.” This time, actually, it wasn’t the Mexicans that created the problem, it was the Americans.
Blair: Right. It was sort of the inverse.
Landau: Yeah. And I think the Mexicans know that Biden doesn’t really care about this issue. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of people—well, I don’t know if there are a lot, but there are some people in the government who seem to be delighted, the more [illegal immigrants] who come in the country, the better.
I don’t know if they think these people are just potential voters for them or what, but I think it’s terrible and I think it’s abusive to these people, and they have unleashed a terrible humanitarian crisis. Again, the biggest beneficiaries of Biden’s policies, make no mistake about this, are these criminal cartels and human smuggling organizations. This is no way to address the problem, by incentivizing illegal migration.
Blair: Interesting. One of the things that this brings to mind for me is, when we look at foreign countries that are losing these migrants—so look at Haiti, look at Honduras, look at El Salvador—there’s a sense of maybe brain drain that’s happening where some of the people who should be staying and improving their own country are instead coming to America to do whatever.
Is that a real concern that these countries have addressed, that they’ve said, “We’re concerned about all of our citizens moving to America or migrating to America and then leaving us in the lurch?“
Landau: It has not been historically but I think it should be. I think it’s something that should be part of the conversation. In fact, it’s very sad when a country loses a lot of people, and they’re people from all demographics, all socioeconomic groups. To some extent, it has been a demographic safety valve for some of these countries that have seen massive population growth.
I mean, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mexico had some of the largest population growth in the world. I think the average Mexican woman had six children at that point, the average. So it’s not surprising that they had these kind of issues 20 years later when those kids born in that boom reached the working age. There just weren’t enough jobs to do that.
But I think, especially when you look at countries now where demographically, they’re no longer going up that steep hill, it’s a big problem for them. I think it’s very shortsighted, it seems to me, for countries to look at, let’s say, the remittances that come back from workers in the United States, which are a big portion of these countries’ economies. I mean, this is a big source of income for Mexico. And kind of shockingly, the remittances in the last couple of years, especially since the pandemic, have reached record levels.
And I think it was very important, ironically, in keeping Mexico afloat because the government didn’t do any kind of stimulus there once the economy shut down because of the pandemic. I think the remittances had a big part to do in keeping that going, but that is not a sustainable program. A country is not growing and prospering by shipping away its own people and relying on remittances from other countries.
Mexico is a rich country. It is a country with a lot of resources, natural resources, and a lot of human resources. It’s got a population of 130 million people. That’s a huge market. And I think it’s in United States’ interest to work with Mexico, to be increasing opportunities and markets in Mexico to increase the prosperity of our region.
That was another thing that the Trump administration did, is we renegotiated the NAFTA agreement, modernized it, but certainly kept the framework to keep Mexico and the United States on the same team economically, but we put in incentives to prevent companies from shipping American jobs down there.
But certainly, I think the distancing from China that, again, President Trump really made a pillar of his foreign policy offers a lot of benefits for the U.S. and Mexico.
I mean, frankly, there’s probably no other country that’s been as hurt by the rise of China over the last 30 years as Mexico because a lot of that would have been done in Mexico. And so a lot of the prosperity in China now, I think, could have probably gone to Mexico.
And I hope, I think it’s in the United States’ interest to have a prosperous Mexico. That’s why as ambassador, I said, “Look, I feel like we have a lot of common interests.” Basically, there’s a lot of win-win situations here because it’s in the United States’ interest for Mexico to do well. It’s in Mexico’s interest for the United States to do well. Our economies, our cultures are very interdependent.
Blair: Now briefly, before we finish up here, I wanted to address something I found very interesting while I was doing some research for this interview. Your dissertation at Harvard was titled “The Rise and Fall of Petro-liberalism: United States Relations With Socialist Venezuela.” As gas prices have continued to spike due to inflation, due to policies by the Biden administration, it is suggested that they’re going to ease sanctions on Venezuela in order to maybe address this problem. What are your thoughts on that?
Landau: I’m horrified by that. Venezuela now is, I’d say, not controlled by a government as opposed to a criminal gang that is deeply involved in drug trafficking. And I think now they are concerned because a lot of their accounts were in Russia and so I don’t know that they can get that money out.
Certainly, it is depressing for me and disheartening as an American to see our own energy producers crippled in this country, and then the administration going hat-in-hand to countries like Venezuela, which is a very close ally of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, asking for their petroleum and looking to buttress them.
So I just think it is insane that we were energy independent just a little over a year ago. This is another of the shocking things in this country that has turned around for the worst so quickly, that we are now going around and begging OPEC and Venezuela and just a lot of these people to do more to help us on the energy front when we are the energy powerhouse of the world, if we’d let our own people do it.
So I think that is very shortsighted of the administration and I don’t think it’s really tenable because the truth is, that criminal gang in Caracas has so destroyed their country’s oil industry that I don’t think it has all that much potential to move the needle in any significant way, but I think it’s a terrible mistake.
Blair: Absolutely. That was Christopher Landau, the former United States ambassador to Mexico under President Donald Trump. Ambassador, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for coming.
Landau: Thanks to you. I appreciate it. Thanks for all you do.
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