Mexico dodges bullet in migrant deal with US

Mexico's President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, held a celebratory rally after averting Donald Trump's tariffs, but not all of his countrymen believe he has reason to rejoice.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Tijuana last week. He has been criticised over the deal for allowing the US to dictate how Mexico uses its security forces, though some say he had little choice.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Tijuana last week. He has been criticised over the deal for allowing the US to dictate how Mexico uses its security forces, though some say he had little choice.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

It resists core US demand in fending off tariffs but may now face more pressure from Trump

MEXICO CITY • Mexico avoided the most extreme immigration concession sought by United States President Donald Trump in a deal reached to fend off threatened tariffs, but some say it has been left even weaker than before in the face of more potential pressure from Mr Trump, who formally kicks off his re-election campaign this month.

Under the deal reached last Friday, Mexico agreed to use a large part of its newly formed National Guard to hold back immigrants crossing from Guatemala, and to take in possibly tens of thousands of people seeking asylum in the US while their cases are adjudicated.

Led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, negotiators in Washington resisted Mr Trump's core demand that Mexico be declared a safe third country, a classification that would oblige Central Americans crossing through Mexico to seek safe haven there, instead of in the US.

But both sides agree that more action could be taken if, within 90 days, the measures do not have the desired result of drastically bringing down the numbers of undocumented migrants reaching the US border from levels that are at their highest in more than a decade.

Last month, US authorities apprehended 132,000 such migrants.

Former World Trade Organisation head Pascal Lamy called Mr Trump's approach to coercing its neighbour and ally "hostage-taking", reflecting widely held concerns in Mexico that the US President will return with more threats to extract greater concessions.

Those fears are sharpened because of Mr Trump's repeated use of Mexico-bashing to fire up his base since kicking off his first campaign for the White House in 2015.

All signs are that he intends to keep the focus on immigration and cross-border issues in his second-term campaign, which officially launches on June 18.

 
 

"We think the threats, demands and Trump tweets against Mexico will continue, especially because it's all tied up with the politics of the 2020 election," said Ms Gabriela Siller, an economist at Mexican bank Banco Base.

Ms Siller expects the peso to rise when markets open today on relief that a trade war has been averted, but said the uptick could be short-lived.

The peso, which had been pummelled in recent months on fears over a trade war, strengthened 0.5 per cent last Friday after Mr Trump tweeted that there was a "good chance" a deal would be reached with Mexico.

Mr Vicente Fox, a former Mexican president and a long-term critic of current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, tweeted that by allowing the US to dictate how Mexico, for example, uses its security forces, the government has already ceded some of its sovereignty.

That sentiment was echoed by centre-left politician Angel Avila - on the other side of the political aisle from Mr Fox - who called the deal "a surrender".

"Mexico shouldn't militarise its southern border," said Mr Avila, who is general secretary of the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Others, however, think that Mr Lopez Obrador had little choice beyond giving some ground in the negotiations, because the threatened tariffs would have caused economic devastation in Mexico, whose economy contracted in the first quarter of this year.

Former presidential candidate Francisco Labastida said the scale of the current immigration crisis was a threat to Mexico itself, and action was needed regardless of Mr Trump.

"Mexico would have had to change its migration policy for its own reasons due to national security," he said, arguing that current numbers are unmanageable.

Mr Carlos Pascual, a former US ambassador to Mexico, praised the deal as preferable to the downward spiral of a tit-for-tat trade war, but acknowledged that it left Mexico open to further pressure.

"Mexico is weak economically and it's always going to be vulnerable if the US is willing to use economic policy to enforce national security policy," he said.

"There's no doubt this leaves a Damocles sword hanging over Mr Lopez Obrador's head," he added, invoking a metaphor that describes an ever-present peril.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline 'Mexico dodges bullet in migrant deal with US'. Print Edition | Subscribe