Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: How Mexico’s president could change California

It’s not every day that the president of Mexico comes to Sacramento, and controversy certainly followed Enrique Peña Nieto to the state Capitol.

A U.S. Marine remains imprisoned in Mexico on weapons charges and his incarceration attracted protestors to Peña Nieto’s events here. But that was a sideshow.

The real story of the presidential visit was one of symbolism and some fundamental changes in Mexico that are still barely understood here. On the symbolic front, Gov. Jerry Brown embraced the Mexican president as a partner – in contrast to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who often demonizes Mexico for political gain.

“We’re at a very good point in our history of openheartedness and willingness to work together,” Brown said before introducing Peña Nieto at a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday.

Beyond the symbolism was something more important that’s not getting much attention.

The telegenic Peña Nieto, a 48-year-old leader with cheekbones made for magazine covers, has his sights on creating a Mexico that Mexicans no longer want to leave for the United States.

If he is successful, the implications for California could be huge. “From a California standpoint, we still depend on Mexican nationals in our workforce, whether we want to admit or not,” said Melinda Guzman, a local lawyer who was a guest of Peña Nieto at a Tuesday lunch in his honor.

Politically, if the numbers of people leaving Mexico remain comparatively low to the high migration flows in the 1990s, it would mean that certain politicians couldn’t honestly use the Mexican border as a wedge issue anymore.

Net migration from Mexico to the United States has fallen sharply in recent years.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, “The number of Mexicans who think a better life awaits those who move to the U.S. has also decreased since 2007 (51 percent in 2007 vs. 44 percent in 2014) ... . Today, 32 percent of Mexicans say they have friends or relatives they regularly communicate with or visit in the U.S., a 10 percentage point decline since 2007.”

Young people between 18 and 29 are still the most likely to leave Mexico for the U.S., unless Peña Nieto can change their minds.

At the state Capitol on Tuesday, he said: “We seek to release Mexico’s full potential by opening more development on our side of the border.”

This has been a missing piece of the immigration debate between Mexico and the United States.

A more successful Mexico would alleviate tensions with the U.S over undocumented immigrants and create more trade opportunities. Brown gets this in a way Perry does not, and – at least for now – California and Mexico are true partners with old divisive issues being pushed to the background.

Wasn’t sure I’d live to see the day.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee