Imagine Donald Trump’s re-election war room. The president of the United States checks tweets as his white supremacist strategists decide — just days before his re-election campaign launch — that it’s time to play the immigration card big time. They hatch a plan to once again slam migrants as the source of all evil in a polarized, unstable, repressive and internationally isolated America, while forcing Mexico to its knees in the interests of “America First”.
This bombshell turned out to be all too real and was, of course, announced in a tweet:
“On June 10th,” Trump proclaimed, “the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied, at which time the Tariffs will be removed. Details from the White House to follow.”
Massive scrambling ensued, as businesses and politicians sought to do damage control. The National Association of Manufacturers, farm associations and a coalition of U.S. and Mexican businesses led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued strong statements warning that the tariffs would punish consumers, dismantle production chains and thwart the new NAFTA. They sent teams of lobbyists scurrying to Washington. Major Republican leaders broke rank and declare their outright opposition to the measure. In Mexico, the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is widely known, sent its top cabinet members to plead for a reprieve.
U.S.-Mexico negotiations took place in a climate of chaos and confusion. Stock markets and currency exchanges punished the Mexican economy before anything real even happened. That’s the big stick that the López Obrador government fears most and Trump knows it. By June 7, the two governments — one led by an anti-immigrant, capitalist conservative and the other by a center-left, self-proclaimed anti-neoliberal leader who promised a humane approach to immigration — reached an agreement.
When the dust cleared, it turned out there were two agreements: an initial one that extended the already-existing program to return Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States to Mexico to await their hearings and sent 6,000 Mexican National Guard members to the border, and a second announcement that if after 45 days Mexico has not complied to the Trump administration’s satisfaction, it must consider an agreement that bars Central Americans from applying for asylum in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has been pushing Mexico to accept this “Safe Third Country” designation for months, while AMLO’s administration steadfastly refused. Now the proposal could go to the Mexican Senate.
The big debate has been over which side won. But that’s not the point. The manufactured immigration crisis and draconian response edged both countries toward a police state where democracy and human rights have been sacrificed in the name of a political campaign on the one hand and the transnational economy on the other. It also revealed the vulnerability of the Mexican government, hailed as a progressive beacon in a region turning toward authoritarian, elite rule.
Manufactured Crisis, Real Threats
Immigration from Central America — especially Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — has spiked in recent months, but still falls well short of historic highs. Honduras is experiencing a full-blown political crisis under the discredited presidency of Juan Orlando Hernandez and with the vacuum of democratic institutions, state, domestic and gang violence has soared. El Salvador has a new government and old, deep-seated problems. Structures of violence left from the civil war fought in the 1980s, including U.S. support of death squads and exportation of gangs and weak institutions, place the average citizen in the crosshairs every day. Corruption, violence and inequality, especially for indigenous populations, has forced Guatemalans to leave in numbers well below those of the eighties but climbing.
Although the supposed threat migrants pose to society is false, Trump’s use of tariffs as a weapon and repression of migrants and their rights are very real threats to the economy, to democracy, to truth and to human security in the United States and abroad — even when he’s bluffing. The tariff-crackdown trade-off may have twisted Mexico’s arm on migration, but it will not solve the problem and it puts the lives of thousands of men, women and children who need international protection in jeopardy. It also risks instability in Mexico due to the burden of receiving thousands of asylum seekers. Shelters in northern border cities are already saturated and now, with the extension of the Remain in Mexico program and continued arrivals, local communities have begun to reject immigrants and immigrants are encountering deteriorating conditions. Trump’s latest election-time threat to launch a major deportation drive, could add large numbers of Mexican deportees to the strain.
Arm-Twisting & Appeasement
AMLO came into office with a two-fold plan: to make migrants safer in Mexico by providing visas and basic needs for the large caravans and to focus on development in Central America to reduce forced migration. Trump’s threats completely reoriented the first objective. The Mexican president first reacted to the tariff threat with indignation and insisted on addressing the root causes of displacement, but his government now seems to have accepted the crackdown model and the absurd idea that migrant families pose a security threat.
The law states that every migrant seeking asylum has a right to protection. Setting quotas for detention and deportation threatens due process and violates rights. In the past weeks, Mexico has suspended the issuance of visas, tripled apprehensions for the year and expanded deportations. As the 45-day deadline looms, the director of the Immigration Institute vowed to reduce flows, as if the problem were numeric, not humanitarian.
Since he took office, Lopez Obrador has gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation with his northern counterpart. Under previous presidents, Mexico swallowed neoliberal formulas hook, line and sinker, becoming hugely dependent on the United States for trade and foreign investment. AMLO has ambitious plans to reorient the economy and reduce inequality — a shaky macroeconomic climate could derail them. What Mexicans are asking is: How far will the progressive president they elected go to preserve relations with a permanently hostile and anti-progressive neighbor? Since the immigration deal, criticisms of allowing foreign intervention in Mexican politics, the betrayal of principles and the violation of rights have multiplied.
A gap has widened between rhetoric and action. The government continues to push its regional development plan for Central America and southern Mexico as the long-term solution to forced migration. The program has the support of the United Nations and, on paper, of the Trump administration. While creating conditions to stay home is the only approach that can change current migration patterns, Mexico’s plan focuses on development without much consideration of the political and social crises that wrack the Central American countries.
Meanwhile, Trump’s priority is to fuel the border crisis through November 2020, not solve it. In the next year and a half, we can expect continued attacks on Mexico and migrants, including inhuman conditions in expanded detention, more deaths in custody, pressure to reproduce anti-immigrant measures and the senseless militarization of the borders.
That means AMLO will no doubt soon face another crossroads — stand up to Trump or continue to appease him. If he chooses the former, he calls down the wrath of an erratic and dangerous leader with no real understanding of the vital links between the two countries. If he chooses the latter, he takes on an unsustainable and immoral commitment to a pre-fascist government and could be responsible for great harm to Central Americans seeking safety. By violating the trust of those who elected him, he also risks losing his base of support.
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma, complicated by the fact that appeasement increases Trump’s political capital. And the last thing Mexico wants is a second Trump administration.