A Win at the Border

President Donald Trump waves after arriving at the U.S. Naval Air Facility in El Centro before visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in Calif., April 5, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Trump evidently knows something about the art of the tariff threat. His unorthodox Twitter diplomacy has gotten Mexico to make potentially important public commitments on immigration enforcement.

Trump said he was going to slap steadily escalating tariffs on Mexico unless it did more to help with the border crisis, a threat with huge downside risks. If implemented, the tariffs would have been disruptive at a time when U.S. growth is perhaps slowing, been an economic gut-punch to an allied country whose stability is important to us, and probably precipitated a congressional revolt against the policy. Instead, Trump has a win that is likely more than a mere PR victory.

Mexico is devoting 6,000 troops to attempting to better police its own border with Guatemala. It’s unclear what this will produce, although it can’t hurt. More important is the extension of the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), or the “remain in Mexico” policy. Under this arrangement, we can return asylum-seekers to Mexico while their claims — almost always ultimately rejected — are adjudicated. This avoids one of the biggest problems of our current policy, which allows asylum-seekers into the country, never to be removed, even if their claims are rejected and they are ordered deported.

Mexico wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about MPP and limited the number of asylum-seekers it would accept to a trickle. Now it is saying it will accept them with no restrictions. That’s a big deal, although our capacity to process the migrants for return is limited, and it remains to be seen how much Mexico will do to follow through on its commitment. The deal at least makes it possible, though, for us to prevent Central American family units from automatically gaining entry into the country, and thus it significantly reduces the incentive for a future flow of migrants.  

The New York Times had a report over the weekend throwing cold water on the deal, saying its component parts had already been agreed to months ago. It’s no secret that the U.S. has been pushing Mexico in this direction for a while (indeed, prior talks that the Times calls “secret” were publicly announced). It’s still an accomplishment to get Mexico to commit openly to fuller, more urgent cooperation with the U.S.

In addition, there is an understanding that if the deal doesn’t work, the U.S. and Mexico will discuss a broader accord on asylum policy — perhaps on a regional basis — to require migrants to seek asylum in the first country they enter. This would have the same effect as “safe third country” agreements, keeping migrants from traveling through countries where they could seek asylum if they weren’t desperate to get to the United States for economic reasons. It would have a transformative effect at the border, although whether such a regional agreement could really be reached is an open question.

In our editorial last week, we said, “If Trump’s tariff threat gets Mexico to sign such [a safe-third-country] agreement, we will be the first to congratulate him on his successful brinkmanship. But it is more likely that Mexico will make some assurances that will be enough to get Trump to relent, while not changing anything fundamental on immigration.”

It looks to be something in between. Mexico hasn’t signed a safe-third-country agreement, but its assurances could be more than symbolic. As we’ve repeatedly said before, it’s shameful that the U.S. Congress doesn’t make the policy changes that could alleviate the border crisis immediately. Instead, Trump has to look to Mexico, and given the blunderbuss weapon he was wielding, the deal that was announced over the weekend is welcome, and better than could reasonably have been expected.  

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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