Co-authored by José Alfredo Miranda López
Barack Obama's recent visit to Mexico, the fourth of his presidency, represented an important, deliberate attempt to shift the focus of Mexico-U.S. relations from security to economic improvement.
But it also represented much more -- a chance to allay the public's profoundly negative conceptions of Mexico by shifting the conversation to education, labor, environment, and other human-scale issues that are truly vital to the future of both countries. While much media coverage focuses on Mexican immigration battles, drug wars and narco-trafficking, the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has been evolving in complex and positive ways.
That is really not so surprising when one considers that the Latino population in the U.S. surpassed 50 million not too long ago, and people of Mexican ancestry account for more than 60 percent of this total. Mexico's economy and middle class are growing.
And there is Obama's pivotal "100,000 Strong in the Americas" initiative, launched in 2011 to expand study-abroad exchange opportunities between the U.S. and Latin America. Increasing student exchange, and building understanding through higher education, offers at least the potential to help offset the tarnished public perception of bilateral relations. Not incidentally, this cross-border tradition contributes heavily to both countries' economies.
Obama's trip reminded us that the two neighbors have much to learn from each another. In the U.S., about a third of the population is under 25, while in Mexico, half of the population is less than 25, a bountiful group of potential college attendees. While higher education has long presented a roadmap to better jobs and futures for young people in America, our increasing educational fees and student debt loads are making such prospects more difficult to realize, particularly among lower-income families. Mexico's landscape is of course different. Public education is free, but just 1 out of every 3 individuals of eligible age enters college, showing limitations in the existing capacity of the country's education system.
Despite encouraging macro-economic signs in present-day Mexico, the number of people living in poverty in the country has been growing. In contrast, the U.S. faces growing disparities in educational attainment based on income level. Our low-income individuals have less access to higher education, let alone student exchange programs.
The U.S. can do far more to help prepare young people in both countries to contribute to bilateral cooperation and a better regional future. In addition, it can and should give a great deal of sustained attention to low-income youth of both nations who face particularly high hurdles to educational attainment.
By investing in disadvantaged students in Mexico and the U.S. who are most at risk of involvement in drug- and gang-related activity, both countries can promote economic development within and without -- and, not incidentally, lessen the need to focus so heavily on security measures and bad news.
There's a lot riding on Obama's trip, perhaps even more than many people in both countries realize. Now that he's back, the work of improving bilateral relations for the sake of both Mexico and the U.S. -- and the people of both lands -- can and should go forward with renewed purpose. Vincent Guilamo-Ramos is a professor and co-director of the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.
José Alfredo Miranda López is the president of Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP) in Puebla, Mexico.