PHARR, RGV – Perhaps the most jarring comment made at last Friday’s seminar on NAFTA, hosted by the City of Pharr, the Consulate of Mexico in McAllen, and Asociación de Empresarios-Rio Grande Valley, came from Agustín Barrios Gómez.

Barrios Gómez is founding member of the Mexican Council of Foreign Relations and member of the Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs.

A member of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) in Mexico, Barrios Gómez served as Deputy of the LXII Legislature of the Mexican Congress representing the Federal District from 2012 to 2015. He is the son of Agustín Barrios Gómez, a former Mexican ambassador to Canada.

Barrios Gómez had a starring role at the seminar, introducing a panel of experts on the North American Free Trade Agreement and reading a declaration in support of NAFTA that was approved by numerous organizations attending the event.

In his own speech, Barrios Gómez said “the stakes could not be higher” when contemplating future U.S.-Mexico relations. He pointed to opinion polls showing that Mexican distrust of the United States has been growing rapidly. He said that if this distrust continues on its current trajectory, Mexico would be unable politically to cooperate with the United States.

“My worry is that with the rhetoric that is going on, it is not going to be politically viable… very soon what could happen is, because this is a human nature thing, it is not even a Mexican thing… what will happen is that it will become politically unviable to cooperate with the United States,” Barrios Gómez said in his speech.

“Yesterday, the Mexican Senate unanimously told the president that if things deteriorate further that it will be necessary to cease cooperation with the United States.”

Barrios Gómez said that for the moment the Senate’s actions were just rhetoric.

“But what is underlying this, and there is a very real danger here… before the 16th of June 2015, a fateful date on many fronts, 29 percent of the Mexican population had a negative view of the United States. Today, over 70 percent do. These are very worrying figures. And it doesn’t just have to do with a factory being built here or not, it has to do with our survival. That is really what we are talking about here.”

June 16, 2015, was the day Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, infamously going down the escalators at Trump Tower and saying that Mexico was sending rapists to the United States.

“That is why it is so important what we are doing here. The stakes could not be higher,” Barrios Gómez told the audience.

Intense Relationship

Barrios Gómez started his speech by saying the U.S. and Mexico are the two most integrated large countries in the world. “By an order of magnitude. It is not open to debate. The numbers behind it are truly staggering,” he said.

Barrios Gómez said the U.S. and Mexico share the most legally crossed border on the planet, with 350 million border crossings per year through 330 ports of entry. He said the number of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States – 37 million – is equal to the population of Canada. Of these, 80 percent are either citizens or legal residents, Barrios Gómez pointed out.

“The Mexican story in the United States is not predominately an undocumented story. And it, of course, goes very, very, deep,” Barrios Gómez said.

Another point that does not get mentioned enough, Barrios Gómez said, is that Mexico is the No. 1 destination for the U.S. diaspora. “That is, at any given time there is between one and three million Americans in Mexico, which is between four and 12 times more than the second place, which is Canada. So, we are talking an order of magnitude here. Mexico is a destination for the American diaspora. It is by far No. 1 and that is something that is not mentioned.”

Another example of the “intense relationship” between the U.S. and Mexico, Barrios Gómez said, is the fact that Mexico City is the only place outside of Washington, D.C., where every U.S. government agency is represented. “Not outside of the United States, outside of Washington, D.C. The new project for the embassy, which is a requirement by U.S. law, is a billion-dollar project in Mexico City.”

At the same time, Barrios Gómez said, Mexico has by far the largest consular representation of any country anywhere. “Again, by an order of magnitude. Over 50 consulates of Mexico in the United States. Why? Because it is that size of a relationship.”

As for trade, $580 billion worth of goods and services crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, Barrios Gómez said. He pointed out that Mexico is the biggest or second biggest customer for 23 out of the 50 states in the U.S. Trade with Mexico is No. 1 in the two most populated states, California and Texas, he noted.

“It is pure integration that is behind the fact that out of every U.S. dollar, every dollar that the U.S. imports from Mexico, fully 40 cents are American content. The number for Canada is 26 cents and the number China is four pennies. You get an idea of what is going on here.”

Reagan’s Vision

Barrios Gómez said something that is not remembered by many is that it was Ronald Reagan who invited Mexico to join a free trade agreement with the United States. He said NAFTA did not happen during Reagan’s presidency because Mexico was not ready.

“If people knew more about the Gipper, they would pay more than lip service to him. And that is his vision included Mexico, and why, because he knew that American national security and prosperity directly depend on a stable and cooperative Mexico.”

Barrios Gómez said that in the 20-plus years since NAFTA was created, Mexico has “shifted its entire economy from import substitution and industrialization to North American integration.” And, he pointed out, 14 million Americans directly owe their jobs to NAFTA.

“Obviously, this has been a successful economic pact. But it was not originally thought of as an economic pact. The reason President Reagan invited Mexico was because he knew it was important for American national security. It was a geo-political agreement. And this geo-political agreement was designed to keep the United States safe by tying and shoring up its entire southern flank.”

Barrios Gómez pointed out that he had the chance to introduce Texas Governor Greg Abbott during a visit to Mexico City a couple of years ago. “One of the things I said was, we (the U.S. and Mexico) are not neighbors, we are roommates. This is much more than just being side by side. This is a shared room, this is the sort of thing where if you set your roommate’s Santana poster on fire, those embers are going to land on your bed. It is a survival thing. It goes deeper than need. It goes to existential risk that we are dealing with here.”

Amazing Neighbor

Barrios Gómez said most people in the United States have “no idea what an amazing neighbor Mexico has always been.” By way of example he pointed to the influence Mexico has had on the design of the U.S. dollar and the badges worn by police officers across the U.S.

“There is nothing new about this relationship. This is not something we are waking up to. These two countries were born together and ignoring that is actually part of the reason why we are now facing so many challenges.”

Barrios Gómez said there are many things being done every single day by Mexico to help the United States, on many fronts. He said this help is not touted enough.

“Our entire visa policy is designed to protect the United States. That is something people do not know. If you come from a country that is in any way hostile to the United States, there is no way you can get into Mexico. We exchange information on levels that are not seen pretty much anywhere. All of this is basic to American national security and I don’t think this is highlighted enough.”

Telling the Border Region’s Story

Barrios Gómez said it is time for the border region to tell its story. At the moment, he said, the story is being told by its foes.

“This is one of the most dynamic and amazing regions on the planet and we know it, right? But outside of here everybody thinks it is a war zone, and your enemies are telling your story. I am a Chilango at the end of the day. I love the border but I am a Chilango, I am from Mexico City. You guys really need to realize that from San Diego all the way to Brownsville, you all have a shared interest,” Barrios Gómez said.

“It is great to look north-south, but we have to look east-west, now. This is not a joke, this is not a drill. This needs to happen today, which is why it is so important that we have these meetings, that we talk about these issues, and why I am so happy, that these organizations have come together to do this.”

Barrios Gómez concluded his speech by saying the seminar was one of the most important meetings taking place in North America today.

“It is as simple as that. That is not hyperbole, it is real. And the border community coming together, with respect to a shared narrative, now we need to put the human and material resources behind it to tell our story.”

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a four-part series by reporters Steve Taylor, Patricia Martinez, and Ena Capucion on the “RGV Seminar on the Bilateral Relationship Between Mexico and United States.”