See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


The Mexican election and President Joe Biden's executive order on asylum were big news last week. And rightly so: The ascension of Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to president set precedents on many levels: the first woman, the first person of Jewish descent and the first climate scientist to lead her country, important in its own right given the global environmental crisis.

But for all the firsts, Sheinbaum is expected to second the priorities of outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, her political mentor. This includes many of his left-of-center economic initiatives, as well as less-progressive policies, including some so-called reforms that may actually weaken Mexico's democratic institutions.

Mexican presidents are limited to one six-year term, and Sheinbaum will work with whoever wins America's November election. And while there are striking differences among the U.S. presidential candidates on issues pertaining to U.S.-Mexico relations, especially in tone — Biden would never suggest that immigrants are "poisoning the blood" of the country, as former President Donald Trump has said — there now also is a striking similarity, following Biden's executive order on asylum that many critics claim is indistinct from Trump-era policies Biden and most Democrats criticized.

Immigration issues will loom large in the U.S. election and in bilateral relations beyond that. So will scourges like the fentanyl drug trade, which has led to death on both sides of the border, often from overdoses in the U.S. and from cartel violence in Mexico.

But one subject that can unite is bilateral trade, which in particular is increasing between Minnesota and Mexico.

In fact, according to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development data released last week, sales of Minnesota goods to Mexico were up 20% in the first quarter of 2024, continuing a welcome trend in expanding economic activity between America's southern neighbor and the North Star State. The first-quarter surge was 10 times the 2% growth in exports since the first quarter of 2023 — better than the U.S. total, which was unchanged from a year ago.

There is a "critically important relationship between the state of Minnesota and Mexico," Laurence Reszetar, the Minnesota Trade Office's director of international business strategy, told an editorial writer. "Regardless of year, of geopolitical challenges, of currency fluctuations, Mexico is in the top three markets for us. We often run a surplus with Mexico. So we understand from an economic perspective the importance of this market."

In fact, last year Minnesota ran a $52 million trade surplus with Mexico. Among product categories with the strongest gains were cereals (up 290% to $340 million), oil seeds and miscellaneous grains (up 136% to $135 million) and vehicles (up 30% to $562 million).

Most profoundly, the exports mean jobs — on both sides of the border. That's key to addressing the vexing migration issue, Carlisle Ford Runge, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Applied Economics, told an editorial writer. Runge, who was directly involved in negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (which was replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020), said that "nothing is accomplished by gratuitous criticism of Mexico on the immigration side. Because the most effective policy for keeping Mexican workers in Mexico is for their economy to continue to grow. And the way that is best accomplished is by continuing trade interdependence."

That interdependence is likely to increase due to geopolitical concerns, including diversifying the global supply chain and responding to China's rise with "nearshoring." Given these and other dynamics, "I don't see any way that Mexico becomes less important" in economic matters, said Reszetar.

That's specially true when so many Minnesotans are of Mexican descent: 208,000 Minnesotans report Mexican ancestry, with over 50,000 born in Mexico.

Trade, despite being demagogued, even demonized by some, is essential to this state's future. "The vitality of Minnesota is not dependent on selling to ourselves or just selling to the rest of the United States," said Reszetar. "It's selling to the rest of the world, and importantly Canada and Mexico, because we have solutions that they need and goods they need and services they need." Along with Canada, having "these two well-developed, smart, advanced markets accessible for Minnesota companies helps the vitality of Minnesota."

That's something candidates should remember during and after the campaign. Because whether it's the current or former U.S. president working with the new president of Mexico, too much is at stake in Minnesota and beyond to not rationally and responsibly address the immigration issues central to each country's economic vitality.