Jorge G. Castañeda
A migrant caravan from Honduras is marching north through Mexico.
President Trump had declared he would suspend aid to Honduras, if its government failed to disband it. It didn’t disband it. He threatened to upend the recently announced new free-trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada if Mexico didn’t stop it, and it didn’t. And he ordered deployment of at least 800 Army troops to militarize the United States southern border and to the border, but in April he sent the National Guard with no effect.
The caravan started on Oct. 12 when a small group of Hondurans left San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew on an emergency trip to Mexicoon Oct. 19, violence broke out on the Mexico-Guatemalan border, as hundreds of Hondurans, mainly women and children, tore down the gates on the southern side of the border, rushed toward the Mexican side, and were met with tear gas. Nearly 7,000 trekkers eventually entered Mexico.
They regrouped and continued their exodus north, escorted by the federal police and aided with water and medicines by Mexican townspeople along the way. Other caravans are reported to be underway. Does this migratory and diplomatic crisis have a solution?
Maybe not, but there is at least an explanation for it, which lies in another question. Why, after all his huffing and puffing, did President Trump accept a watered-down version of a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, known now as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA?
No one knows for sure, but after nearly 40 years of being intimately involved, as an academic and public official, with these situations, I can offer an informed guess: The United States gave up most of its trade demands in exchange for a confidential commitment by Mexico to do Washington’s dirty work against would-be immigrants and refugees. Of course, this is speculation, and the evidence is all circumstantial.
From experience, though, I know how both countries, for diverse reasons, tried always to keep different issues on the bilateral agenda separate and not mix them together. In an ideal world today, that is how it would be, but not with Mr. Trump. These American bureaucratic traditions, which Mexico always counted on to maintain stability and sensibility in the relationship, have been overturned. Immigration and trade have become intimately linked, at least in Mr. Trump’s mind. Therein lies part of the origins of the current caravan crisis. It is not just Trumpian electioneering.
On Sept. 29, Mexico, Canada and the United States finally reached a deal on a revised version of NAFTA that was promptly rebranded by Mr. Trump with a new name largely because it doesn’t have much new content. The president achieved far less than he originally sought.
His initial goals — reducing the United States trade deficit with Mexico, bringing automobile jobs back to the United States — are unlikely to be accomplished any time soon, if at all. He acquiesced to a deal that fell far short of his ambitions. And he hardly mentions it on the campaign trail as one of his signature triumphs.
Indeed, it seems probable that Mr. Trump’s ultimate goal, at the end of the day, was to obtain Mexican cooperation on security at the border and immigration from Central America. As he tweeted: “The assault on our country at our Southern Border, including the Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in, is far more important to me, as President, than Trade or the USMCA … Hopefully Mexico will stop this onslaught at their Northern Border.” For now, it hasn’t, and shouldn’t.
Mr. Trump himself mentioned this bilateral cooperation as part of the trade deal. At a White House news conference on Oct. 1, when flaunting the agreement, he said it explicitly: “Yeah, we talked about it (the wall, border security). With Mexico, we talked about it. It was a big part. And certain things and certain understandings are had. At the same time, we don’t want to mix it up too much. This is a very big deal and very good deal for everybody. But border security and security generally is a very big factor.”
He was probably referring to the two main American demands on Mexico that have been made public in the United States press over the past weeks. They are ominous for Mexico and ignoble for the United States.
First, Washington has been pressing the outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, to sign what is known as a Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. This entails Mexico processing Central American asylum claims locally, and allowing American authorities to deny any claim for asylum in the United States, since Mexico would be considered a “safe third country.” With violence in Mexico at its highest point in decades, and many Central Americans being murdered there in recent years, it is hard to see the merits of such a certification by Washington, much less its acceptance by Mexico. So far, Mr. Peña Nieto has resisted that pressure; the caravan is moving freely through Mexico.
One can suppose, however, that the incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, may have less leeway, especially if this arrangement was a precondition for a new NAFTA. Mr. Trump has stated that the Honduran caravan members must request asylum first in Mexico without any legal basis for doing so. Mexico has no reason for proceeding this way, except for United States pressure.
Second, and most important, since 2014 under President Obama, and now more than ever, Washington has pressured Mexico to shut down as much as possible of its southern border — in a nutshell, to do its dirty work. Mr. Peña Nieto has reluctantly gone along, but the cost for Mexico is rising, and he is soon to be no longer in charge.
This is why it’s reasonable to assume that the Trump administration conditioned its acceptance of a diluted new NAFTA on Mexico’s acceptance of more cooperation, or complicity, with the United States, for keeping Central Americans, be they refugees, economic migrants, or a combination of both, from reaching the United States border.
This is what Mr. Pompeo said in Mexico: Stop the Hondurans from reaching the United States border. Mr. López Obrador has insinuated that he won’t maintain this policy. Knowing him on and off for more than 30 years, I think the chances are that if he is left no choice, having agreed to the NAFTA/immigration trade-off, he might cave in to American pressure, despite his displeasure and current denials. He has staked too much on USMCA as a source of economic stability for his incoming government to put it at risk simply because of Central American refugees. But deporting thousands of Central Americans or placing them by force in refugee camps would be intolerable for his supporters.
There is obviously a great deal of electoral distraction in all of this, and Mr. Trump’s bluster on these matters has proved meaningless in the past. Still, these pressures on immigration, coupled with the rise of deportations of Mexicans from the United States heartland, bode not well for Mexico nor for the United States. These approaches are harmful for Mexico, and unworthy of the United States.
Mr. Pompeo’s flash visit to Mexico City confirmed what has been known for months. Immigration is at the top of the Trump agenda with Mexico (and other countries); this approach is damaging to Mexico, Central America and the United States. The new government in Mexico, a hypothetical new majority in the House of Representatives, and hundreds of thousands of Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees should all be aware of this. Together, they are responsible for designing a response that is both effective and practical, but most importantly, humanitarian.