The June 7 deal may seem to amount to a big victory for Trump, the result of a Tweetzkrieg threatening to impose tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico agreed to accomplish within 45 days what the U.S. has failed to do for years: “to sufficiently achieve results in addressing the flow of immigrants from Central America to the southern border.” Perhaps even Trump was surprised by Mexico’s readiness to give in to his demands, and mobilize forces to slam the door shut on Central Americans seeking to make their way up to the United States. He still hasn’t gotten Mexico to pay for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Trump can plausibly say that he is forcing Mexico itself to become the wall. Moreover, as the analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor noted on an influential Mexican cable-news show, the Mexican government’s submission to Trump’s tantrum sets Mexico up to be the U.S. president’s piñata during his long reelection campaign.
But both sides could be missing the real significance of the accord: Trump has in effect ended the traditional cordoning off of immigration issues from the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship. He has, perhaps unwittingly, opened the door to recognition that the North American trading bloc is as much about people as it is about goods and services.
First, the United States should have adjusted upward the number of visas made available to Mexicans. Because it did not, Mexicans who came to the U.S. in pursuit of work had little choice but to live in the shadows. And remember, Mexicans weren’t crossing the borders in such large numbers during the 1990s in pursuit of public welfare or colder weather. They were lured over (many recruited at home) with jobs by employers all too happy to rely on undocumented labor, entire industries that would collapse if the U.S. deported them all overnight.
Second, the three North American partners should have jointly created policies for addressing immigration from the rest of the world. The number of Mexicans crossing the border without authorization peaked more than a decade ago, and the overall number of unauthorized Mexicans has been decreasing during the period Trump has been ratcheting up his rhetoric about all those “bad hombres.” But the surge in Central Americans seeking asylum in North America does pose a shared, regional challenge that points to the need for an EU-like coordinated approach. Migration has stressed Europe’s union as well, of course, but the concept underlying the Continent’s Schengen(establishing the notion of one border between signatory states) and DublinAgreements (stipulating that asylum seekers must request asylum in the first EU member state they arrive in) makes a great deal of sense.
North America today is criminally unprepared to handle the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing their countries. Both Mexicans and Americans have been shocked in recent months by the recurring stories of families separated at the border, the conditions immigrant kids face in detention centers (with U.S. officials quibbling over whether they deserve soap and toothpaste), and the scenes of large caravans of Central Americans making their way north to seek asylum in the United States. This week shock turned to utter horror as newspapers featured heart-wrenching front-page photos of an El Salvadoran father and his 2-year-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, and an equally poignant shot of a Haitian immigrant and her small child begging for help in Tapachula, Chiapas.
The “supplementary agreement” to the June 7 deal established that Mexico will consider a “safe third country” arrangement if the situation doesn’t improve during this 45-day probationary period. Long resisted by Mexican governments, such an arrangement would require those seeking asylum to request it in the first “safe” country they cross. Mexico, that is, would become the destination, not a transit corridor, for all Guatemalans fleeing across their border.
But the supplementary deal also uses language even an ardent cross-border integrationist in Brussels would recognize. It contains a call to negotiate a binding agreement that would address “burden sharing” and “assignment of responsibility for processing refugee status claims of migrants,” and a call for “a regional approach” to dealing with third-nation immigrants. A seed, perhaps, for more fruitful days ahead, if one inadvertently planted.