The government of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged to deploy thousands more troops to the border with Guatemala and host within Mexico’s borders many more migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The agreement came nine days after Trump threatened to slap a 5 percent across-the-board tariff on Mexican goods if the U.S. neighbor didn’t clamp down on the flow of migrants coming from countries further south, particularly Honduras and Guatemala. Trump even warned that the tariff rate would rise as high as 25 percent should Mexico fail to heed his demands.
The likelihood of that extreme scenario — and the prospect of a destabilizing, ruinous trade war hitting both sides of the border — seems to have dimmed.
“The Tariffs scheduled to be implemented by the U.S. on Monday, against Mexico, are hereby indefinitely suspended,” Trump tweeted. “Mexico, in turn, has agreed to take strong measures to stem the tide of Migration through Mexico, and to our Southern Border.”
Trump’s supporters and Republican allies hailed the former real estate tycoon’s game of brinkmanship.
“While I generally do not support imposing tariffs … Mexico’s lack of commitment when it comes to addressing the unsustainable and dangerous migratory crisis at our Southern Border has left this administration no other choice,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a statement. “By exerting maximum pressure and demanding decisive action from the López Obrador administration, President Trump has secured an important victory on behalf of the American people.”
Democrats, though, were less than impressed by Trump’s bullying. “Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Over the weekend, Trump bristled at any reporting that took the shine off his supposed victory. He was particularly incensed by a report in the New York Times that contended that most of Mexico’s commitments had already been negotiated before his threat of tariffs.
“The Mexican government had already pledged to [deploy more troops along its southern border] in March during secret talks in Miami between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, and Olga Sanchez, the Mexican secretary of the interior,” the Times reported. “The centerpiece of Trump’s deal was an expansion of a program to allow asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal cases proceed. But that arrangement was reached in December in a pair of painstakingly negotiated diplomatic notes that the two countries exchanged.”
Trump also intimated that Mexico had agreed to more concessions than what was publicly disclosed and tweeted that American farmers — badly affected by his trade war with China — would get a boost from additional Mexican purchases. But Mexican officials speaking to Bloomberg News denied that a separate “side accord” was in the works and indicated that agriculture had not been discussed during three days of talks last week.
In Mexico, a conciliatory López Obrador weathered the Trumpist storm and rallied public opinion to his side. “Once again, Donald Trump has unified Mexico,” wrote Luis Petersen Farah, a columnist in the Milenio newspaper. “With his new threats, he managed to put even the strongest and best-known critics of Andrés Manuel López Obrador on his side.”
Impatience with the migrant influx is also building south of the U.S. border. “The Mexican public has become far less sympathetic to the migrants after several massive caravans crossed the country starting last summer,” wrote my colleagues in Mexico City. “When Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico, the daily El Universal asked in a poll what the Mexican government should do. More than 50 percent of respondents said it should block the migrants. Fewer than 25 percent responded ‘confront Trump.' ”
But Trump’s eagerness to trumpet a political victory — his campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters celebrating the “art of the deal” and the president keeping his promises to “end illegal immigration” — suggests rocky times to come if Mexico can’t fulfill his expectations.
And there are reasons to believe Trump may soon be frustrated. The Trump administration’s plan to keep asylum seekers in Mexico faces legal challenges in courts. Moreover, fully shutting off the flow of Central American migrants remains a logistical impossibility.
“Even if they have the political will, they don’t have the capacity,” Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations told Politico, referring to the Mexican government. “So what happens three months from now? You’ve delayed but you haven’t necessarily ended this threat of tariffs.”
And, as readers of Today’s WorldView know, the root factors driving migrants north from Central American countries get obscured by the anti-immigration zeal of the Trump administration, which has recently cut vital development aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“In my experience you can do things more aggressively at the border that will have a sharp but short impact on numbers,” Jeh Johnson, a homeland security secretary in the Obama administration who presided over a similar clampdown half a decade ago, told The Washington Post. “But as long as underlying conditions in Central America persist, things will always revert back to the longer trend lines, and that’s why continuing aid to Central America is so important to solve larger problems.”
“The President’s constant threats of sweeping action at the border … play right into the sales pitch of smugglers in region: ‘go to US now, before it’s too late,' ” he tweeted.