US strong-arms Mexico on immigration agreements

Trump threatened to impose tariffs on trade with its second largest trading partner to pressure Mexico to take measures against immigration

June 12, 2019 by Abdul Rahman
Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. Photo: Getty Images

In a much hyped but controversial move Friday June 7, the US and Mexico announced a deal to check the influx of migrants from the Central American countries. The deal came after Trump threatened a massive tariff hike with Mexico if it did not take measures to stop migrants from reaching US borders. Trump threatened to raise tariff rates by 5 percent every month till they reach 25 percent in October. Mexico is the US’ third largest trading partner after China and Canada.

According to the deal Mexico has agreed to take “unprecedented steps” to control the movement of migrants through the country. The most controversial of the measures was agreeing to the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guards across the country with a priority to its southern border with Guatemala. According to the deal, the US will send detainees at the border back to Mexico where they will stay until their asylum applications are processed in the US. Other details of the deal were not made public.

In February this year, Trump declared an emergency on the Mexico-US border to tackle a surge in the number of asylum seekers and has announced a “zero tolerance” policy to undocumented immigration. Immigration has increased in recent years after a long period of decline since 2005. However, the rise in numbers are still much lesser than the previous surges. In 2019 so far, the total number of migrant detainees in the US is 600,000. The figure was just 400,000 for the entire 2018.

As per the media reports, Mexico refused one critical demand of the US. The Trump administration wanted Mexico to process the application of asylum on its own soil but Mexico refused. In one of his tweets on Sunday Trump claimed Mexico has agreed to buy more agricultural products from the US farmers. However, as per the report in the media there is nothing of this sort in the June 7 agreement.

As previously mentioned, Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the US. US-Mexico volume of trade stood at $671 billion in 2018, with the imports at $299 billion and exports at $372 billion. The exports to the US are seen as important for jobs and other sectors of Mexican economy.

Mexico and the US are parties of a United State-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), signed last year which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and are both signatories of the World Trade Agreement (WTO). According to these international trade bodies, any threat of a unilateral tariff hike is illegal.

Several commentators and US politicians, including some Republicans expressed their surprise at Trump’s threat of higher tariff to achieve a solution for immigration. Adam Kinzinger, a US representative and member of the Republican Party called the threats of tariff as opening of a undesible second front. Republican senators Ted Cruz and John Kennedy also expressed their disagreements to the move. John Kennedy in an interview to the Fox News, said “I am worried that the harm of tariffs will be greater on the US economy.”

Many believe that Donald Trump’s threat of higher trade tariffs to achieve its zero-tolerance policy on immigration from Central America may backfire. They cite the possibility that it may lead to a loss of thousands of jobs in the US itself and higher prices for goods imported from Mexico which includes cars and car parts, food products and medicines. It is also expected that higher tariff will create more unemployment in Mexico which may lead to an increase in the number of asylum seekers.

The readiness with which Trump administration signed the deal despite its major demands not being met is attributed to domestic pressures by the business groups who want to avoid more economic turmoil. The ongoing trade war with China has already taken its toll on the economy. Many also speculate that Trump’s threat of a trade war with Mexico was an “event” created to impress his constituencies.

Trump, however, announced that this is not the final deal. In a series of tweets on Sunday he stated that negotiations are still going on and the final deal will be announced in 90 days. He further said that in case the deal fails to materialize, the higher tariffs may be imposed in future. Mexican Secretary of Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that if Mexico fails to curb the number of migrants within 45 days it is ready to negotiate some of the crucial aspects of the deal including the US demands of “third safe country”.

Meanwhile, within Mexico, many have criticized the US pressure tactics. They have termed the deal as a “compromise of country’s sovereignty”, a “surrender” to the US dictates. Catholic Bishops conference in a statement on Monday said that the deal is tantamount to converting the entire country into the wall.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador expressed his dissatisfaction with the policy of threat and intimidation in a rally on 8 June in Tijuana. During his election campaign he had highlighted the US pressures and promised to take US hegemony head on. He had termed Trump’s immigration policy “irresponsible” and “racist”. However, Mexico’s dependence on trade with the US has seemingly forced him to negotiate a deal. A trade war with the US, which is Mexico’s largest trade partner, may destroy a lot of jobs. At the time when the economy is under stress due to domestic and international recession, the government may want to avoid any fresh troubles.

Reports also surfaced that Mexico had agreed to most of the US demands much before Trump’s threats. The New York Times reported on June 8, a day after the deal was announced that Mexico was already providing temporary asylum to people who were trying to cross the border to the US. It had increased border patrolling leading to the establishment of secondary checkpoints, carried out more deportations than the US and has provided temporary asylum on humanitarian grounds. In the context of these facts the so called “deal” looks like an “event” organized for political gains. The fact that such games can be played with a country as big as Mexico highlights the pointlessness of so-called international norms and the vulnerability of poorer and smaller countries in the region.