American citizens tend to view the country's immigration problem in terms of the large number of undocumented immigrants residing in the United States and the ongoing flows of unauthorized migrants into the country. But Mexicans have a different set of concerns. They focus on how their compatriots are treated in the United States and how some six to seven million undocumented Mexicans in the country can gain the legal standing and rights they now lack. Like U.S. Latinos generally, Mexicans find the debates over immigration insulting (Mitt Romney's suggestion that undocumented immigrants should "self-deport" was particularly offensive). Mexican leaders of all political stripes criticize U.S. immigration laws as unjust, disrespectful, and cruel, and regularly call for reforms. But they know how counterproductive it can be to intrude forcefully into U.S. disputes on immigration.
Beyond immigration, Peña Nieto and his advisors consider energy policy one of their highest priorities on a far-reaching agenda of economic reform. Their two main challenges are to 1) free Mexico's national oil company, PEMEX, from the suffocating constitutional and regulatory constraints that keep production and revenue low, and 2) allow for the large-scale exploitation of the world's fourth-largest deposits of shale gas. Oil production in Mexico has plummeted by nearly 25 percent from its peak in 2004 and reserves continue to shrink. Unless officials take action, Mexico could be a net oil importer by the end of the decade. If, however, the Mexican government succeeds, even modestly, in opening its hydrocarbon sector to private and foreign exploration and investment, it would be a game-changer for both Mexico and the United States. Mexico would gain access to the capital and technology -- including deep-sea drilling -- the country requires to remain a major oil exporter and take full advantage of its potential wealth in shale gas. Energy reform in Mexico could also set the stage for a genuine North American energy market, to the benefit of all three NAFTA partners. And greater energy production in Mexico should mean less U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East and other distant and/or troubled parts of the world.
To be sure, the political obstacles to energy reform in Mexico are formidable. They include the country's history of energy nationalism and the fact that a serious easing of current restrictions on hydrocarbon exploitation cannot proceed without multiple changes in Mexico's constitution, which will require a difficult-to-obtain two-thirds majority in Congress. Still, there are reasons for optimism, including the growing acknowledgement by Mexican leaders across the political spectrum of the escalating costs of the status quo. The legislature's two largest parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN), both support energy reform and together enjoy a majority in Congress. It is widely anticipated that they will remain allied for the coming year, and they may be able to draw sufficient votes from smaller parties to amend the Constitution. The determined leadership of Peña Nieto, who is viewed in Mexico as a talented, pragmatic politician, will be essential. For its part, the United States knows that its interests will be best served by staying out of Mexico's debates about the country's energy future.