The Slatest

How the Close U.S.-Mexico Partnership Could Unravel Under Trump

Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; PeterHermesFurian/iStock.

This is the fifth in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

Where would Donald Trump be without Mexico to beat up on? As a candidate, Trump loved to make fun of his competitors—from little Marco to lyin’ Ted to Jeb Bush. He never had a nice word to say about Muslims and threatened to jail Hillary Clinton. But his absolute favorite punching bag, which he returned to with remarkable consistency for such an inconsistent guy, was Mexico.

Trump announced his candidacy with an infamous description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. The construction of a wall along the southern U.S. border became his signature pledge, along with the bizarre insistence that Mexico, those wussies, would pay for it. And he used the North American Free Trade Agreement as a highly-effective bludgeon against both his Republican primary rivals and Hillary Clinton.

Since Trump’s unexpected election, Mexico has reacted with dismay. The value of the peso, which rose and fell throughout the U.S. campaign in inverse correlation with Trump’s poll numbers, has plummeted. Mexico’s Central Bank has cut the country’s growth forecast, with its chief comparing Trump to a “category five hurricane” for the Mexican economy just before announcing his resignation. The government has also instructed its consulates in the United States to step up services to protect immigrants from harassment and deportation.

At home, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government has been downplaying the impact of Trump, saying it’s too soon to know what he’ll do once he’s in office. “This contrasts radically with what people in Mexico are feeling,” says John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “There’s a generalized fear and anger at Pena Nieto himself for having played a part in bringing Trump to power and for his total passivity to defend Mexican interests, sovereignty, and the rights of Mexicans in the United States.”

Nieto controversially invited Trump to a meeting in Mexico City in August. It was a grave miscalculation: The trip accomplished the impressive task of making Trump looks somewhat statesmanlike, while doing almost nothing to moderate his rhetoric on trade or immigration. The result of the election is a further blow to an already unpopular government’s standing.

So what will Trump’s election actually mean for Mexico? Right now, Mexican officials are scrambling to figure just how serious Trump was about those campaign pledges. Is Trump really going to build the wall? He and his surrogates are already backing away from the idea that the entire border will be walled, but given how central it was to his campaign, it’s hard to imagine the idea will be abandoned completely. “The symbolism of it is much more important than the physical wall,” says Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Mexico saw itself as becoming a true strategic partner of the United States. And all of a sudden, there’s a wall going up, whether it’s partial or total or whatever, it sends a signal that ‘you do not belong here.’”

Mexico has presidential elections in 2018 and is certainly not immune to the anti-establishment mood sweeping democracies everywhere. Payan notes that there’s been “remarkable consensus” between Nieto’s PRI party, and its main rival, the PAN, on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. “They really believed that they were becoming part of a larger North American platform with the United States and Canada,” he told me. But then, “all of a sudden they realized that the relationship is more frail then they thought.”

If Mexicans turn on both parties, the likely beneficiary is more in the mold of Bernie Sanders than Trump: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing former Mayor of Mexico City and perennial presidential candidate. “He is the one person in Mexico that is perfectly well positioned to take advantage of this,” says Payan. “He is perfectly positioned to take up a more nationalistic discourse. He can say that he is the rescuer of dignity, because Mexicans are feeling a little humiliated.” Obrador is no Hugo Chavez, but his election following Trump’s would likely mark the end of the ever closer political and economic partnership between the U.S. and Mexico.

In Trump’s mercantilist worldview, trade is a zero-sum game and Mexico is “beating” the U.S. by undercutting American manufacturers. This is why Trump says he wants to get rid of NAFTA. But Mexico also buys more American products than any country except Canada, and many of the goods that are counted as imports are actually partly produced in the United States. An estimated 6 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico. A complete trade breakdown could be disastrous for both countries.

Unlike other deals Trump says he will renegotiate or cancel—the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, the diplomatic opening to Cuba, to name a few—Trump would need Congressional approval to renegotiate NAFTA, which, given how difficult the deal was to get approved in the first place, could bog down his entire presidency. Nieto says Mexico is not open to renegotiating this agreement. If Trump simply pulls the U.S. out of the deal, the impact might not be massive, since tariffs would still be low between the two countries, who are both in the World Trade Organization. If Trump starts imposing tariffs on Mexican imports, the likely result would be a trade war with Mexico imposing tariffs on its own. This would wreak havoc on the U.S. markets and likely increase the prices of many U.S. goods. It would also grind the Mexican economy—heavily dependent on exports, 80 percent of which go to the U.S.—to a halt, which could have the ironic effect of driving more increasingly desperate Mexican workers to seek jobs north of the border.

There’s one more way the deterioration of ties with Mexico could actually lead to more immigrants coming to the U.S. Contrary to Trump’s campaign rhetoric, immigration from Mexico has been slowing and even saw a net loss last year. But the number of migrants from Central American countries coming to the U.S. through Mexico, including the well-documented cases of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, have been high. Under U.S. pressure, Mexico launched a program in 2014 to block these migrants. It hasn’t been particularly effective and has been rife with corruption and human rights abuses, but under a Trump administration, Mexico could conceivably abandon the program altogether, leading to more migrants making the trip to the U.S. border.

Earlier in Slate:

·       How Much Damage? Iran Edition.

·       How Much Damage? Syria Edition.

·       How Much Damage? East Asia Edition.