Mexico’s relief at avoiding costly US tariffs gave way on Saturday to concern that it could be forced to take back tens of thousands of asylum seekers, piling pressure on its weakening economy.
Many also feared that, despite Friday’s deal, Mexico would remain vulnerable to future attacks by President Donald Trump, who looks set to make immigration a cornerstone of his 2020 re-election campaign.
“It’s hard to see it as a victory — but Mexico will no doubt play it as one, because it could have been worse,” said David Shirk at the University of San Diego. “I think [President] Andrés Manuel López Obrador had no choice, he had a gun to his head.”
The president has called a “celebration” rally in the border city of Tijuana on Saturday night to cap a week of drama following Mr Trump’s threat to levy tariffs from Monday unless Mexico curbed migrant numbers that surged by 32 per cent to 144,278 in May from April. Mr López Obrador describes the Central American migration as a “humanitarian crisis”.
Under the deal announced on Friday night in Washington after a 12 hour session that closed three days of tense negotiations, Mexico agreed to deploy its new National Guard police force to beef up its border with Guatemala.
It also agreed that migrants applying for asylum in the US would to be “rapidly” returned to Mexico pending US court hearings. It was not clear if the US would provide financial aid given that court backlogs could keep them in Mexico for years. Under the deal, Mexico promised to offer asylum-seekers jobs, healthcare and education.
Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said Washington had proposed “more drastic measures”, which he had refused — such as turning Mexico into a safe third country in which migrants would have to seek asylum, rather than in the US.
But Nancy Pelosi, US speaker of the House of Representatives, said she was still “deeply disappointed by the administration’s expansion of its failed Remain in Mexico policy, which violates the rights of asylum seekers under US law and fails to address the root causes of Central American migration”.
Since January, the so-called “Remain in Mexico” strategy — officially called Migrant Protection Protocols — has been rolled out at only three border crossings, but the deal would expand this along the whole border.
But in some Mexican states, including Tamaulipas and Coahuila, drug cartels and people smugglers “make a lot of money out of kidnapping migrants — it’s a pillar of the economy,” according to Stephanie Leutert, an expert on immigration at the University of Texas.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already challenged the Remain in Mexico policy in court on the grounds that Mexico — where homicides soared to a record 30,499 last year and have climbed further in 2019 — is not a safe country. An initial stay was overturned, allowing the Trump administration to continue the policy while the appeals process continues.
So far, 10,393 mostly Central American asylum seekers are awaiting their hearings in Mexico and some 18,778 more are waiting to cross into the US to present their claims.
It was not clear whether migrants who are already waiting for asylum hearings in the US would be sent back immediately, or whether the move applied only to those presenting themselves after Friday’s deal.
“I think we are talking of tens of thousands and that will have a very high cost,” said Gustavo Mohar, an immigration expert and former Mexican government official.
“All this is really to stop families, which are the largest numbers of migrants and increasing every month,” Ms Leutert added, noting that 315,000 Central American families have been apprehended this year.
Business leaders welcomed the deal that averted the threat of a 5 per cent tariff on all Mexican exports from Monday, rising to 25 per cent by October. That had initially sent the peso currency plummeting nearly 4 per cent against the dollar since 80 per cent of Mexico’s exports go to the US and the Nafta partners share complex supply chains.
‘Good news for Mexico and for North American competitiveness and trade integration,” tweeted Gustavo de Hoyos, leader of the Coparmex business confederation.
The US Chamber of Commerce said it was now imperative to move ahead with ratification of the USMCA deal to update Nafta.
But how successfully Mexico would be able to secure its southern border, when its National Guard is not yet up and running, remains to be seen.
“The US can’t secure its own border . . . it has asked Mexico to do something we can’t do ourselves,” said Mr Shirk.
Mr López Obrador, who has steadfastly refused to rise to Mr Trump’s bait, enjoys popular support: a June 4 poll by El Financiero newspaper found 84 per cent supported the president’s “peace and love” stance in the face of the tariff threat.
In addition, only 54 per cent of respondents favoured shutting Mexico’s borders, down from 72 per on May 13, and 43 per cent believed migrants should be supported and allowed free passage through Mexico, up from 25 per cent the previous month.
The president, who is known as Amlo, wants to use his rally in Tijuana to underscore Mexico’s friendship with the US. “He can celebrate in Tijuana but it’s too soon to say how much this will cost Mexico,” said Mr Mohar. “Trump congratulated Amlo — let’s see how long that lasts. Trump is not a friend of Mexico.”
Mr Trump’s 2020 election campaign kicks off on June 18 in Florida and Mexico again promises to be his piñata. Friday night’s deal gave Mexico a 90 day deadline to show results or face further, unspecified, action.
“This is good news, no doubt,” tweeted Alejandro Hope, a security expert. “Like it’s good news when a kidnap victim is freed after a ransom is paid. We can even celebrate that the ransom was lower. But one thing is incontrovertible: the kidnapper got away with it.”