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Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan speaks at the Baker Institute

Bound by economics and a common border, the United States and Mexico have become strong trade partners, but immigration and security issues will continue to challenge the next American president, Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said at an Oct. 20 appearance at the Baker Institute.

"As we work to shut down our common border to the potential threat of terrorists or organized crime, how do we ensure that the free flow of licit goods, services and people continues unabated?" asked Sarukhan, who was appointed Mexican ambassador to the United  States in February 2007.  "These are some of the very valid challenges that a new administration, regardless of whether it"s Republican or Democrat, will have to face as it engages with Mexico."

The ambassador"s remarks, entitled "From Distant Neighbors to Strategic Partners?" were part of the institute"s ongoing U.S.-Mexico Border Project, which seeks to develop equitable solutions to key issues that affect both countries. Previous program guests include renowned author and academic Carlos Fuentes and former Mexican foreign affairs secretary Jorge Castaneda.

One of the biggest challenges for the United States and Mexico is immigration, said Sarukhan. He predicted an uphill battle for the next president on immigration reform issues which have become "toxic" and profoundly divisive in the U.S.  Time and leadership will be essential to pull together a political coalition that will support a meaningful immigration package, the ambassador said.

For its part, Mexico wants every citizen who crosses into the United States to do so legally, whether through a temporary worker program or a more flexible visa program at ports of entry, said Sarukhan. He believes the U.S. will be much better off if it knows the names, addresses and home countries of the millions of currently undocumented immigrants who live and work within its borders.

Immigration reform is also essential for Mexico which is "bleeding human talent," he said. As Mexico"s labor force ages, fewer workers will attempt to enter the United States and fewer will be left in Mexico to help the country grow as a nation, Sarukhan said.

Sarukhan praised the effect NAFTA has had on U.S.-Mexico relations. Since the agreement was enacted in 1993, Mexico has become the United States" third-largest trading partner. What"s more, negotiations with the U.S. Congress, labor organizations and other groups have forced Mexico to become more accountable and democratic, Sarukhan said. "NAFTA anchored Mexico and made Mexico a part of the world," he said.

Still a work in progress is a fully coordinated U.S.-Mexico response to organized crime -- though the countries have moved in the right direction by agreeing to take joint responsibility for the problem, the ambassador said. "As Mexico seeks to shut down the flow of drugs coming through our country into the United States, we need the support of the United States to shut down the flow of weapons, bulk cash and chemical precursors which originate in the United States, transit through the United States and go into Mexico and feed organized crime there," he said.

Although the next U.S. president will face critically pressing issues in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, "in terms of the daily impact and socio-economic well-being of Americans, and on security, there is no more important country than Mexico" because of a shared 1,969-mile border, Sarukhan said. "These two countries are partners, are friends, and their future depends on the well-being of one another."