WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY • The United States and Mexico have struck a deal to avert a tariff war, with Mexico agreeing to rapidly expand a controversial asylum programme and deploy security forces to stem the flow of illegal Central American migrants.
US President Donald Trump had threatened to impose 5 per cent import tariffs on all Mexican goods starting tomorrow if Mexico did not commit to do more to tighten its borders.
Mr Trump tweeted early yesterday: "Mexico will try very hard, and if they do that, this will be a very successful agreement for both the United States and Mexico!"
In a joint declaration after three days of talks in Washington, both countries said Mexico agreed to immediately expand along the entire border a programme that sends migrants seeking asylum in the US to Mexico while they await adjudication of their cases.
However, the deal fell short of a key US demand that Mexico accept a "safe third country" designation that would have forced it to permanently take in most Central American asylum seekers.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday that the President would retain the authority to impose tariffs if Mexico fails to live up to the deal.
"We now have an agreement that we believe is going to fix the immigration issue. And that was extremely important to the President," Mr Mnuchin told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of a Group of 20 finance meeting in Fukuoka, Japan.
Frustrated by a recent surge of migrants that has overwhelmed US resources on its southern border, Mr Trump had used the threat of tariffs to pressure Mexico into making concessions.
He has made hardline efforts to reduce illegal immigration, a cornerstone of his presidency, and it is certain to be a key issue in his re-election bid next year.
But business groups and even some close Republican allies were unhappy with the prospect of tariffs on the top US trade partner, saying they would damage the economy.
Duties on Mexico would also have left the US fighting trade wars with two of its three largest trading partners, and would further unnerve financial markets already on edge about a global economic slowdown.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in Washington that his team had also resisted US requests to send deported Guatemalans to Mexico.
He said he was satisfied with the deal. "I think it's a fair balance because they had more drastic measures and proposals at the start and we reached some middle point," he said.
He also highlighted US support in the agreement for a Mexican proposal to jointly address underlying causes of migration from Central America.
The asylum programme to be expanded is commonly known as Remain in Mexico, and currently operates in the border cities of Tijuana, Mexicali and Ciudad Juarez.
Under the new deal, returned asylum seekers will spend long periods in Mexican cities, such as Reynosa on the Texas border, where drug cartels frequently kidnap migrants.
The programme was challenged in court earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups, which say it puts asylum seekers in danger and violates US and international law.
Under the deal, Mexico will also increase its efforts to stop illegal migrants from Central America travelling through Mexico to the US.
Those measures will include deploying Mexico's militarised National Guard security force to its southern border.
Mr Ebrard said the National Guard deployment would start tomorrow.
The two countries will continue discussions, to be completed in 90 days, on further steps, according to the declaration.
US border officers apprehended more than 132,000 people crossing from Mexico last month, the highest monthly level since 2006.
Mr Trump, who has called the surge in migrants an "invasion", had threatened to keep raising duties up to 25 per cent unless Mexico addressed the problem.