MEXICO HAS defused President Trump’s latest fit of pique with minimal concessions, which is appropriate. Mexico did not cause the surge of immigrants from Central America to the United States, and it is not well positioned to solve the problem. Better tools are at hand for the U.S. president and Congress, if they would only decide to wield them.
Mr. Trump had threatened to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico if it did not take drastic steps to cut the flow. In an agreement announced late Friday, he suspended the threat. Mexico agreed to deploy troops from its National Guard on its southern border and to allow more asylum seekers to live in Mexico while they await U.S. adjudication of their claims. About 9,000 are there now, and the program could be expanded if the migrants are able to live safely and work.
Mexico did not commit to any specific reduction of migrants, and it did not accept the top U.S. demand: that Mexico force Central Americans to apply for asylum in Mexico instead of the United States. The two countries also agreed to help build “a more prosperous and secure Central America to address the underlying causes of migration.”
That last provision, which got little attention, could be the most significant. Few people want to leave their homes. Central Americans are coming north because poverty and crime have made life unbearable. In another fit of pique two months ago, Mr. Trump took the wildly counterproductive step of cutting off aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. A recommitment to help those countries would be the single most useful measure the administration could take.
There are steps the United States could take at home also. A concatenation of court rulings, congressional inaction and administration failures has created a perverse incentive for migrants to cross the border with children. They claim asylum; a swamped court system postpones their case for years; the government does not have the facilities or the legal right to hold them; so they are “paroled” into the United States for an extended period.
Most of the asylum claims eventually are denied. If the system could rule quickly, word would get out and fewer families would come. Congress should approve funding to hire more judges and to hold families in decent conditions for short periods.
The more durable fix would be to allow for the legal flow of immigrants that the economy needs, including legal status for “dreamers” — immigrants generally brought here as small children who are Americans in all but documentation. Such reform would then impose real penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers. Mr. Trump could achieve such a reform if he ceased inflaming the issue for electoral advantage, vilifying immigrants as “criminals” and “invaders.”
Given how unlikely that is, Congress should consider playing a constructive role. In a rare display of independent judgment this week, GOP senators strengthened Mexico’s negotiating stance, and thus helped defuse the kerfuffle, by coming out strongly against Mr. Trump’s proposed tariffs. They could build on the moment by working with Democrats to strengthen the border regime while bringing dreamers out of the shadows.