By Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Juliana Menasce Horowitz is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are her own.
When U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Mexico this week, he will encounter a Mexican public that has far more positive attitudes about the United States than at any time in the last several years.
America’s image south of the border fell sharply in 2010, when Arizona passed a “show me your papers” law aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. But Mexican views have rebounded since then, and U.S. favorability ratings are now at their highest point since 2009. The prospects for U.S. immigration reform may be, at least in part, the source of renewed Mexican approval of their neighbor to the north.
A new Pew Research Center poll found that 66 percent of Mexicans have a favorable opinion of the U.S., up 10 percentage points from a year ago and up 22 points from May 2010, immediately following the enactment of Arizona’s immigration law. The last time America’s image was as strong among Mexicans was in 2009, when 69 percent said they had a favorable opinion.
Opinions of Obama, though more positive than in 2012, are still mixed – 49 percent express confidence in the American president, while 39 percent have little or no confidence in him, compared with a year ago, when 42 percent of Mexicans said they had confidence in Obama and 46 percent said they did not.
This boost in America’s image comes amidst rising expectations that Washington may soon reform U.S. immigration laws.
More than 11 million native-born Mexicans live in the U.S., including about 6 million who are in the country illegally – by far the largest segment of the undocumented population, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. In June 2012, Obama authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, giving more than one million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children the chance to apply for temporary but renewable work permits and avoid deportation. It is estimated that 70 percent of those eligible for the program are from Mexico.
Obama carried the Latino vote by 71 percent to 27 percent in his 2012 reelection victory. Since then, the president and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators have been working on legislation that would remove the risk of deportation and open a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. These legislative developments have been followed closely by the Spanish-language media.
But this resurgence in goodwill for America coexists with continued skepticism about Uncle Sam’s intentions and influence in Mexico. And Obama himself, although now more popular than a year ago, receives only lukewarm ratings there. The president’s trip, which is being billed by the White House as an “opportunity to reinforce the deep cultural, familial and economic ties that so many Americans share with Mexico and Central America,” is also a chance for Obama to improve his own image on several key issues regarding the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
One challenge will be to convince Mexicans that Washington sees them as a full partner. About half of Mexicans say their neighbor to the north takes Mexico’s interests into account; 45 percent say it does not. And while the vast majority of Mexicans generally sees the benefits of strong economic ties with the U.S., their opinions are more mixed about the impact America is currently having on Mexico’s economy, with 33 percent saying U.S. influence is positive and 28 percent saying it is negative.
Besides talks on economic ties and collaboration on immigration and border security, Obama is likely to hear from Mexico about the U.S. role in the country’s ongoing fight against drug traffickers. Currently, 56 percent of Mexicans blame both the U.S. and their own country for the drug violence in Mexico, while one-fifth say the U.S. alone bears most of the responsibility.
Mexicans welcome their neighbor’s cooperation in combating this serious problem, with about three-quarters saying they want U.S. help in training Mexican police and military to combat drug trafficking, and 55 more than half saying they approve of the U.S. providing money and weapons to their country’s police and military. But they draw the line at any American boots on the ground, with 59 percent rejecting the deployment of U.S. troops to their country to fight narco-traffickers.
The drug war, immigration and the economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico are among the items bound to be on the agenda when Obama visits Mexico this week, and Mexican opinion regarding U.S. involvement on these issues has shifted in a somewhat more positive direction in recent years. The question now is whether the two countries can build on the promise fostered by the proposed immigration policy and cement some the progress that appears to have been made.