Over the past six months, Mexico’s new government has pretended not to hear Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric. Nasty tweets have come and gone while Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who promised when he was running for president to push back against Trump’s affronts, has barely blinked. In late January, in an effort to promote the construction of his border wall, Trump compared Mexico to Afghanistan. “I’d rather not say anything at all,” López Obrador replied, with a coy smile. “I’m very respectful.”
Indeed, he has been. Mexicans voters may have hoped that the more combative, populist López Obrador would finally stick up for his country after his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto’s failed attempts to placate Trump. But the new president has not only completely refrained from taking on Trump’s nativist rhetoric in public, his administration has also agreed to many of Trump’s demands on immigration, including the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, which allows the United States to send potential Central American refugees back to Mexico to wait out their asylum process in dire conditions and uncertainty. It has done so with just one thing in mind: protecting bilateral trade.
It’s all been for naught.
Last week, Trump announced a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods beginning Monday, June 10. The tariff is meant to intimidate the Mexican government into full compliance with U.S. demands on immigration, but the threat broke one of the relationship’s unspoken diplomatic rules—thou shall not use one area of the bilateral agenda to manipulate another. It also immediately shook Mexico’s government out of its cynical stupor. Within hours, López Obrador urgently dispatched Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to Washington (where he had just been three days prior discussing, well, immigration). By Monday, a large number of Mexican diplomats, Cabinet members, and trade experts had descended on D.C. in an effort to convince the Trump administration to desist. Silent no more, López Obrador sent Trump a two-page letter calling for mutual understanding in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mexico’s government had finally drawn a line: Publicly insult Mexico, taunt immigrants, or harass potential refugees and you’ll get respect; threaten tariffs, and half the Mexican government will try to persuade you otherwise. How’s that for moral priorities?
Ebrard met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday. Mexico’s foreign minister seemed confident before the meeting. “We are working hard to reach an understanding,” Ebrard tweeted. “It’s doable and desirable. There’s an 80/20 chance we’ll succeed.” After just 90 minutes in the White House, Ebrard’s odds seemed backward. On Twitter from across the Atlantic, Trump lamented that “not nearly enough” progress had been made and once again threatened tariffs. Pence added his own admonition for good measure. “Mexico must do more to address the urgent crisis at our southern border,” the vice president tweeted.
The question, for Ebrard and the rest of the López Obrador administration, is what “more” Mexico can actually do to abate the growing Central American exodus? Before the tariff crisis exploded, Ebrard had been naïvely trying to sell the Americans on an ambitious development project for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Not surprisingly, given the White House’s fixation on enforcement rather than development in the region, Ebrard’s plan was largely ignored in Washington. The Trump administration now seems focused on forcing Mexico’s hand on immigration deterrence and deportation of Central American asylum-seekers.
Over the weekend, a number of administration officials hinted at possible immediate actions Mexico could take to appease Trump on the immigrant surge and the tariff threat. The most revealing opinion came from acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Mexico needed to “step up and do more” to stop immigrants on their way to the United States. Mexico, McAleenan suggested, should add boots on the ground along Mexico’s southern border and aggressively go after the “Transnational Criminal Organizations” that smuggle migrants north. McAleenan also said Mexico should clamp down on “transportation choke points” in the country’s southern regions and substantially increase the number of arrests and deportations of Central American migrants.
McAleenan also hinted at what could become the most contentious request coming from the United States: “They’re safe in Mexico,” McAleenan said. “Mexico has reached out and offered refugee status to thousands of people since President López Obrador has been in office. That should be the place, if they’re safe in Mexico, to request that.” This was likely a reference to a long-sought request from DHS: that Mexico formally declare itself a “safe third country,” meaning that Central American migrants would have to apply for refuge there rather than in the United States. This would allow the administration to justify punitive procedures like the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy now making its way through the courts.
If this is indeed what Trump wants in order to withdraw the tariff threat, Ebrard and the rest of his delegation are going to have their work cut out for them. Conditions on the ground in Mexico are far harsher that Ebrard would like to admit. This is partly the government’s fault. Contrary to myriad recommendations, López Obrador has dramatically reduced the budget for the government agencies in charge of managing refugees and processing removals. Mexican border towns are ill-equipped for handling transient immigrant populations, let alone managing long-term settlements. Mexico also faces other, more systemic challenges. The fight against smugglers who squeeze immigrants out of their last cent is an uphill battle, and it would be even more so if López Obrador ends up scrapping the Mérida Initiative, the bilateral agreement that has strengthened cooperation on intelligence and security over the last 12 years.
And yet, nothing would be a more indefensible concession than granting a potential request for Mexico to become a “safe third country” for Central American immigrants. McAleenan is mistaken: Mexico is not a safe country for refugees. Without real resources, it is not fit to grant asylum in a massive scale. It is wrong and misleading for a U.S. official to pretend otherwise. For a Mexican official like Ebrard to do so would be unconscionable. The decision would put an enormous number of people in danger. It would also grant Trump an invaluable political gift to boast of during the upcoming presidential campaign.
What will the Mexican government do? Ebrard and his colleagues will soon have to choose between showing some backbone—demanding real American cooperation on the region’s shared challenges and rejecting Trump’s threats—or giving in to Trump’s outrageous and wholly unrealistic demands. It is a dilemma that will determine the fate of millions.