MEXICO CITY — The nominee to become the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico would be the first woman to hold the job in the two centuries that America has been sending diplomats south of the border.
But Maria Echaveste also has another distinction that her friends and colleagues find even more relevant in this political moment: she is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who grew up in Texas and California to farm-working parents.
Echaveste went on to study anthropology at Stanford, and got her law degree from Berkeley. She practiced as a corporate lawyer for years, served in the labor department and as deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and has been a professor and a consultant. But it is her years of involvement with Mexico, and the fraught nature of the U.S. immigration rules, that has generated the most interest in her candidacy.
“To me, she represents the future,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro Medina, a professor of U.S.-Mexico relations at Syracuse University. “She’s bilingual and bicultural. She’s someone who loves Mexico but is American.”
As a private citizen, Echaveste, 60, has been an advocate for immigration reform, which has been repeatedly blocked in Congress. She has described the issue as one that is “real and it hurts families.”
The oldest of seven children, she was born in Harlingen, Tex., a border town, before moving as an infant to Clovis, Calif., outside of Fresno. Her parents came from Mexico as guest workers in the "Bracero" program, a World War II-era series of arrangements that ultimately brought millions of Mexicans into agriculture and other manual labor jobs in the United States. As a child, Echaveste helped her parents pick strawberries.
Echaveste has written about the importance of immigrant workers.
“What is it about this work—child and parental care, home maintenance, food production, cleaning—that allows society to treat the workers in these occupations as invisible, or at least less important than the software developer, insurance adjustor, or any of the countless other occupations that have greater status in our society?” Echaveste wrote in a 2009 essay about immigrant women. “Our 21st-century economy is increasingly based on a growing service sector economy, which is why we need to challenge ourselves to value the work of women, and especially the work of immigrant women.”
In a 2012 video interview after President Obama’s last election, she said that he needed to attempt immigration reform during his second term or risk political backlash.
“He will not be given a pass this second term, not with this kind of [Hispanic] support, not with the turnout,” she said. “There will be [a] really serious price to pay if he doesn’t attempt to pass immigration reform.”
As ambassador, those who know and work with her expect she would carry out whatever policy the White House chooses.
“She’s a corporate lawyer, she’s not Cesar Chavez,” said Rossana Fuentes-Berain, a prominent Mexican journalist and media executive who has known Echaveste for several years. "I have seen her work. She's tough and determined, and very curious about everything related to Mexico and Mexican Americans."
“She will come as the quarterback for the U.S. federal government in this super-complex, super-intense, and super-asymmetrical relationship,” Fernandez said.
Some have been less enthusiastic about the choice. In a column called “The Mystery of Echaveste,” journalist Leon Krauze questioned her credentials in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper this week, pointing out that she was not a career diplomat or a Mexico academic. “It seems the principal asset of Ms. Echaveste is being a) the daughter of Mexican immigrants and b) a Hispanic woman,” he wrote. “It’s a shame. The ambassador from Washington in Mexico is not there to fill quotas.”
The outgoing ambassador is Anthony Wayne, a career diplomat who served as a deputy at the Kabul embassy before coming to Mexico. He had to navigate a rough patch in relations. The previous ambassador, Carlos Pascual, had been removed at then-Mexican president, Felipe Calderon’s, request. The new Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, then stepped back from the tight drug-war partnership with the United States that Calderon had established. The Edward Snowden revelations of NSA spying on Peña Nieto further ratcheted up the tension.
During her political career, Echaveste has been a close ally of, and a former paid consultant to, Hillary Clinton. As secretary of state, Clinton appointed Echaveste as a “special representative” to Bolivia in 2009, after Bolivian President Evo Morales ousted the U.S. ambassador there.
Echaveste is married to Christopher Edley, who taught Obama while he was a law student at Harvard and who was dean of Berkeley’s law school until last year. Her mother currently lives in Mexico.
If confirmed as ambassador, she will have many strands to manage at one of the largest embassies in the world. There are millions of Mexicans living in the United States, and there is more than a billion dollars of trade every day between the two countries.
“The U.S.-Mexico relationship is ultimately more about social ties and economic interactions than it is government-to-government relations,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where Echaveste is on the advisory board. “Having an ambassador with a sensibility to understand how many different organizations are involved is helpful.”
“She’s a great combination of someone with political and substantive depth in the United States and also cares about the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” he said.
Many of her supporters believe she will win Senate confirmation, but some are still anxious that unpredictable mid-term elections, or potential presidential action on immigration, could become disruptive.
“There’s enough to keep me awake at night,” said David Ayon, a professor at Loyola Maramount University who has worked with Echaveste on the U.S.-Mexico Foundation.