MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials sought to portray victory Saturday after a deal with the Trump administration to potentially curb migration and avert U.S. tariffs, but others questioned whether the bargain may end up as an open-ended burden.
The contrasting views — after a late Friday announcement of the agreement by President Trump — highlighted the uncertainties in Mexico about the provisions of the pact and whether the White House could use similar tariff threats in the future to try to exact more concessions.
The agreement calls for the Mexican government to widely dispatch its national guard forces to help with immigration enforcement on its border with Guatemala, according to a joint statement.
It also expands the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, returning asylum seekers across the border to await their hearings in U.S. immigration court — a process that can take months.
Mexican diplomats called it a triumph that they were able to secure a deal without agreeing to a “safe third country” agreement, which would have forced Central American asylum seekers to apply for refuge in Mexico, rather than allowing them to make their claims in the United States.
“The bilateral relationship is strengthened for the benefit of the region,” wrote Jesus Seade, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America.
Mexico’s president, Andres Manual López Obrador, planned a speech later Saturday in the border city of Tijuana.
Mexico’s private sector meanwhile celebrated its reprieve from tariffs, which business leaders said would have been catastrophic.
“As little damage as possible,” wrote Gibrán Ramírez Reyes, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Diplomacy has triumphed.”
Still, if the United States sends the bulk of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico during often-lengthy cases, Mexico might suddenly see a surge of tens of thousands of migrants stuck on its northern border. Politicians in the region, in particular, worried about what that surge might mean for their cities, which have already seen an increase in migrants waiting to enter the United States.
“We need to know how the Mexican government is going to contain the migrants, how they are going to identify those who make it into Mexico,” said Maki Ortiz, the mayor of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Tex. “We need to know how long the migrants are going to be on our border, how they’re going to get access to health services, to employment.”
“If the United States makes them wait long enough in Mexico for their asylum claims, eventually they’ll all try to cross illegally,” Ortiz added.
In border cities like Reynosa, migrants and deportees are frequently targeted by criminal groups, sometimes extorted and attacked.
In 2011, 193 bus passengers, most of them migrants, were killed in the nearby town of San Fernando. A Mexican government report later found that they had been abducted by local police officers linked to a drug cartel.
“In a worst-case scenario, this quantity of people could create a major problem for border cities that will have to house a population of migrants waiting for their hearings in the United States, with no prospects for work or permanent housing, and at the mercy of groups criminals who will see migrants as easy prey,” wrote Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, an op-ed in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper.
Before the agreement was announced, business leaders expressed concern that even Trump’s threat of tariffs abated, he would use the same tactic to pressure Mexico in the near future.
“Even if Mexico accepts all of the conditions right now, what could happen next week? Maybe Mr. Trump wakes up in the morning and decides to say something else. This might not be the end. We will appear like a piñata,” said Rafael Villanueva, the president of the San Luis Potosi chapter of Index, a national manufacturing council.
Business leaders said they were caught off guard by Trump’s tariff threat because it came after both countries, along with Canada, had mostly finished renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, an arduous process that many believed would allow for the growth of North America’s interconnected supply chain.
“Everything seemed to be positive. We were awaiting the ratification of the [the new trade deal] in both congresses. We did not foresee see that this pressure would come,” said Luis Enrique Zavala Gallegos, the vice president of Mexico’s national association for importers and exporters. “Anyone who says they were prepared is not telling the truth. Even the government wasn’t prepared for this.”
One report from the Perryman Group, an economic analysis firm based in Texas, estimated that the tariffs would lead to a $41.5 billion loss to the U.S. economy and 400,000 lost American jobs. Mexico’s government has said that the impact will ripple across the country’s entire economy. The minister of agriculture, livestock and rural development, Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula, said Mexico’s agricultural sector alone would lost $3.8 million per day.
“Mexico cannot and should not bend the knee to Trump’s ultimatum,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.
He called it a “bad omen” and worried that Trump could seek further pressure on Mexico as the 2020 presidential race heats up.
“More than a deal, what Trump is looking for is a trophy,” Sarukhan said.
Some argued the Trump’s threat made it clear that the time had come for Mexico to look to other trading partners, especially China.
“We must look for other markets to compensate us for these lower sales,” said Jorge Macias, the president of Tijuana’s chamber of commerce.
Like many in the private sector, Macias expressed frustration at Trump that went well beyond the recent threat of tariffs.
“It is exhausting for Mexico and puts us in a scenario where we lose out,” Macias said. “It is a constant aggression by President Trump.”