How Americans See Mexico

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Donald Trump, Immigration, Justin Trudeau, manufacturing, Mexico, NAFTA, North America, Ottawa, supply chains, Vianovo

(Courtesy Vianovo and GSD&M)

The three North American leaders meet tomorrow in Ottawa, the new Trudeau government reviving an annual summit. As a recent poll of U.S. perceptions of its neighbors by Vianovo and GSD&M confirms, they face public opinion headwinds. Canvassing 1,000 U.S. adults through YouGov, the survey reveals the deep suspicions Americans hold of their neighbors, especially Mexico.

Less than one in four Americans have a positive image of Mexico, and fewer still believe it has a modern economy or is safe for travel. Many see Mexico as an economic drain—when removing those who say they don’t know enough, a similar number want to leave as stay in NAFTA (mirroring the Brexit divide). A majority of Americans see the Mexican government as corrupt, the nation as unstable, and believe illegal immigration is increasing. Over half want to build a wall to shield the United States from these perceived problems. For them, Mexico is a problem, not a partner.

These views divide sharply along partisan lines. By a two-to-one margin Democrats say they want to preserve NAFTA, compared to pluralities of Republicans and independents who would prefer to abandon it. Feelings about Mexico in particular differ depending on one’s politics. Republicans overwhelmingly see Mexico as the source of problems for the United States rather than as a good neighbor; Democrats are split between the two views.

These perceptions don’t reflect reality. Since 2009 migration flows from Mexico have been net zero to negative (more people leaving than coming). Instead the largest sources of U.S. migrants are China and India. Economically, North American supply chains undergird much of U.S. manufacturing and support the jobs of millions of Americans. Without NAFTA the auto, electronics, and machinery industries would likely shut down, moving wholesale to other regions.

Overall the majority of Americans miss the fundamental transformations Mexico has undergone over the last few decades. Now the eleventh-largest global economy, Mexico boasts top research universities, highly successful multinational companies, tens of millions of middle class consumers, and GDP per capita topping $18,000 (in PPP terms).

Though cold comfort, American suspicions aren’t limited to Mexico. One in five Americans want to wall themselves off from Canada. These isolationist views aren’t driven by Trump—perceptions haven’t changed much in four years (the last time the firms conducted a survey). Few respondents even mentioned him, though when asked a strong majority thought he would worsen relations with our neighbors. What did emerge is that Americans that know Mexico—having visited for work or fun—feel better about the country. Time to encourage more visits—on top of the estimated 22 million trips by U.S. citizens each year. Perhaps that can change perceptions.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.