How Mexico talked Trump out of tariff threat with immigration crackdown pact
Mexican negotiators convinced President Trump to back down from his tariff threat by agreeing to an unprecedented crackdown on Central American migrants and accepting more-expansive measures in Mexico if the initial efforts don’t deliver quick results, according to officials from both governments and documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
The enforcement measures Mexico has promised include the deployment of a militarized national guard at the Guatemalan border, thousands of additional migrant arrests per week and the acceptance of bus loads of asylum seekers turned away from the U.S. border daily, all geared toward cutting the migrant flow dramatically in coming weeks. The measures, described by officials from both sides and included in Mexican negotiating documents reviewed by The Post, appear to be more substantial than what the Mexican government has attempted thus far during the precipitous rise in migration to the U.S. border.
Since heralding the pact in a Friday night tweet, Trump has fumed at criticism that he capitulated to Mexico and that his accord amounts to a series of previously agreed-to measures.
Trump officials Monday described the accord as a breakthrough, and the president considered Mexico’s plan aggressive enough to suspend his tariff threat even though he liked the idea of imposing the duties over howls from members of his own party.
U.S. officials say they were particularly impressed with Mexico’s pledge to deploy up to 6,000 national guard troops to its border region with Guatemala. Mexico described its plan to U.S. officials as “the first time in recent history that Mexico has decided to take operational control of its southern border as a priority,” according to Mexican government documents.
Such language amounted to the kind of rhetorical shift Trump officials were looking for from the leftist government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who last year dismissed immigration enforcement in Mexico as “dirty work” at the behest of the United States.
Bristling at criticism of the pact, Trump also said Monday that his deal with Mexico has “fully signed and documented” provisions that have not yet been publicly disclosed, hinting at a regional plan under discussion during the negotiations that would give the United States the ability to deport most Central American asylum seekers.
“It will be revealed in the not too distant future,” Trump wrote in early-morning tweets, describing the measures as “an important part” of the deal with Mexico and “one that the U.S. has been asking about getting for many years.”
On Monday afternoon at the White House, Trump said the agreement has been locked in and is something that will be announced very soon: “It’s all done. It was all done because of the tariffs and the relationship with Mexico. . . . Mexico is doing more for the United States right now than Congress. Tremendous problem at the border.”
Most asylum seekers who reach U.S. soil now are processed and released into the U.S. interior to await court proceedings, something that can take months or years. The proposal would make asylum seekers instead apply for protection in the first foreign country they reach after departing their homeland, potentially allowing the United States to send Guatemalans back to Mexico, and Hondurans and Salvadorans back to Guatemala. Department of Homeland Security officials were in Guatemala last month discussing such a plan.
Mexico has repeatedly said that it will not agree to a “Safe Third” accord that would require it to take in U.S.-bound asylum seekers transiting its territory. But Mexican officials have been willing to negotiate something that would function in a similar way, if responsibility for asylum seekers were to be shared among other nations in the region.
They say such asylum changes would require approval from Mexican lawmakers, and Trump said in a tweet Monday he would impose tariffs if the regional asylum overhaul doesn’t pass: “If for any reason approval is not forthcoming, Tariffs will be reinstated!” he warned.
The accord offers clear political advantages for Trump. By conditioning the tariff threat on sharp reductions in migration flow, the deal has essentially tasked Mexico with delivering the results that the Trump administration has been unable to achieve on its own. And if Mexico’s efforts don’t pan out, Trump can blame the López Obrador government and revive his tariff threat to elicit a stronger response.
If unauthorized migration levels fall as a result of more Mexican enforcement, Trump will be able to take credit, emboldening his bullying approach to diplomacy.
Trump’s frustration with Democratic opposition to his “border wall” has been compounded by the record influx of Central American families and children during the past year, but the president’s tariff ultimatum alarmed Mexican officials — more than previous threats to close the border — because it conditioned vital commerce and trade on immigration enforcement.
The tactic generated significant leverage, according to officials from both countries who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe last week’s negotiations.
Immediately after Trump made the tariff threat, López Obrador dispatched a negotiating team to Washington led by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who had to spend several days waiting for the U.S. president and other top White House officials to return from overseas, with pressure mounting.
The outlines of the deal began to take shape quickly, after Ebrard and Mexican Ambassador Martha Bárcena met at the country’s embassy last Sunday with acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan to discuss an expanded enforcement framework.
U.S. authorities detained more than 144,000 migrants along the Mexico border last month, the highest level in 13 years and nearly double the number taken into custody in February. The United States is on pace to make more than a million arrests at the border this year.
On Wednesday, Ebrard and Bárcena met with Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House attorney Pat Cipollone and McAleenan to hash a deal.
Senior adviser Jared Kushner, who often takes the lead in talks with Mexico, was out of the country traveling with Trump, his father-in-law. Stephen Miller, the president’s hawkish immigration adviser, also was in Europe.
The U.S. negotiators told the Mexican delegation that the immigration issue was the most important thing to Trump’s presidency and that they needed to take meaningful, concrete actions with measurable goals.
Mexican officials in March had pledged to increase the size of their security deployment along the Guatemala border, but the proposal for 6,000 troops was far larger than the contingent to which they had previously committed. They also presented a detailed plan for more checkpoints, detention centers and ramped-up deportations — all aimed at preventing migrants from moving north and at deterring others from trying.
The Mexican officials said their enforcement measures would reduce U.S. border arrest totals closer to 50,000 per month by October, with the goal of reducing migration to where it was in mid-2017, when detentions dropped to their lowest level since the early 1970s.
The U.S. side said Trump wanted the numbers to fall faster and farther. Mexican officials agreed to more, while also urging the United States to add more immigration judges and process asylum claims faster. Mexican officials noted that the legal and administrative dysfunction of the U.S. immigration system was not Mexico’s responsibility.
Officials from both countries said the talks were cordial and efficient, and the outlines of a deal were in place by the end of Wednesday. Lengthy meetings to finalize a joint declaration continued Thursday and Friday at the State Department, in anticipation of Trump’s return from Europe.
Up until the last minute, U.S. negotiators did not know if the president would accept the deal, but his senior advisers were telling him to take it.
Mexico also agreed to a border-wide expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocol program, informally known as “Remain in Mexico,” that requires Central American asylum seekers to wait outside the United States while their claims are processed, placing significant strain on Mexican resources.
Since MPP began this year, Mexico had been resisting U.S. pressure to expand the program, which so far has sent at least 10,000 asylum seekers back to Mexican border cities that are among the most dangerous in the country. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have been sending roughly 250 asylum seekers per day back to Mexico. Under the agreement reached Friday, U.S. officials said they expect to increase the rate to 1,000 per day.
Those deportations, combined with Mexican pledges to increase arrests of Central Americans from about 700 per day to as many as 2,000 per day in coming months, would potentially stop nearly half of Central American migrants headed north.
Mexico also has pledged to increase patrols and arrests along its side of the border with the United States, and Mexican officials have asked for location coordinates of the busiest crossing points used by smugglers — a “first,” according to one U.S. official.
“These are things Mexico had never agreed to do before,” Pence said Monday on Fox News.
Pence added that the United States also had reached a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala that ostensibly would force Hondurans and Salvadorans to seek asylum there instead of in the United States. He said the deal would be implemented only “if it’s necessary.”
The agreement, Pence said, would “essentially say that if people are looking for asylum, that they ought to be willing to apply for asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive.”
U.S. officials say that will get them close to a deterrent “tipping point” that will cause a larger number of would-be migrants to reconsider the journey. But they say it will require Mexico to fully implement the deal and target the smuggling organizations and the corrupt officials they partner with.
Pompeo said Monday that the U.S. might still impose tariffs on Mexico if it doesn’t make progress on stemming illegal immigration, noting that the agreement is more expansive than previous discussions with Mexico.
“The scale of the effort, the commitment here, is very different,” Pompeo said, noting that the United States probably would be able to judge success within a month or 45 days. “We will evaluate this literally daily.”
Until last week, Mexico also had rebuffed offers of U.S. financial assistance to cope with the migration surge, but American officials say that too has changed. To shelter, feed and care for an increasing number of Central Americans who could wait months in Mexico for an asylum decision, the United States is willing to provide “tens of millions” of State Department dollars that have gone unspent as a result of plunging refugee admissions, officials said.
Mexico also is considering plans to transport migrants away from border cities to house them in relatively safer cities that have more government services, they said.
Pushing back at critics, Trump said in an interview with CNBC that he has been keeping additional elements of his deal under wraps to let Mexico go public first.
“We purposely said we wouldn’t mention it for a little while,” Trump said in the interview, declining to offer more details.
In Mexico City, López Obrador and Ebrard acknowledged for the first time Monday that the full scope of their agreement with the United States was not disclosed in a joint declaration the two governments released Friday.
The two officials said the need for a regional asylum realignment would not be necessary because their plans for a massive enforcement push in southern Mexico would deliver the swift reductions in migration Trump is demanding.
“If these measures are not successful, we will sit down to discuss with different countries a regional strategy,” said Ebrard. “But we trust that the measures will be successful.”
Asked for more detail, Ebrard told reporters that the countries in the region would “need to make a pact so that the number of migrants doesn’t rise” because if numbers rise, the United States will impose the tariffs. He said that a regional agreement would include Latin American countries that migrants currently use as transit points, citing Brazil, Panama and Guatemala.
“We need their solidarity,” Ebrard said of other nations. “Brazil because that’s where people arrive from outside of the continent. Panama because that’s where Cubans and Haitians arrive, Guatemala because that’s where Hondurans and Salvadorans pass through. It’s a regional system.”
López Obrador said he and Trump spoke over the weekend and agreed to “maintain contact in 90 days to await results.” The Mexican president said he is optimistic.
Sieff reported from Mexico City. John Hudson and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.