WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s deal to avert his threatened tariffs on Mexico includes few new solutions to swiftly stem the surge of Central American migrants flowing over America’s southern border.
But it delivers enough for Trump to claim a political win.
The decision — announced by tweet late Friday — ended a showdown that business leaders warned would have disastrous economic consequences for both the U.S. and one of its largest trading partners, driving up consumer prices and driving a wedge between the two allies. And it represented a win for members of Trump’s own party who had flooded the White House with pleading calls as well as aides who had been eager to convince the president to back down.
But ultimately, it gives Trump the ability to claim victory on a central campaign promise that has been largely unfulfilled as he prepares to formally launch his 2020 campaign.
“In the face of naysayers, President Trump yet again delivered a huge victory for the American people,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement, applauding the president for using “the threat of tariffs to bring Mexico to the table” and “showing that he is willing to use every tool in his toolbox to protect the American people.”
Trump ran in 2016 pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, but instead has watched as the number of border crossings has spiked to its highest level in over a decade — with U.S. Border Patrol apprehending more than 132,000 people in May, including a record 84,542 adults and children traveling together. That surge has been straining federal resources, leaving officials struggling to provide basic housing and health care to families fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
With Trump overseas and an unproductive opening negotiating session with Mexican officials Wednesday, many at the White House had expected Trump to move forward with the 5% tariff he’d threaten to slap on all Mexican goods on Monday in an effort to strong-arm the country into action, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Aides including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were no personal fans of the policy, but they understood Trump’s frustration and presented several suggestions to the Mexican delegation to walk him back. They also made clear that Trump was dead set on the tariffs without dramatic action.
U.S. officials were nonetheless surprised when talks resumed Thursday and Mexico agreed to some of the things Pence had put on the table, including an expansion of a program that forces some asylum-seekers to return to Mexico as they wait for their cases to be adjudicated. And while such a measure never made it into the agreement, Mexican officials also expressed an openness to discussing something they had long opposed: having Mexico become a “safe third country,” which would make it harder for asylum-seekers who pass through the country to claim refuge in the U.S.
Conversations continued Friday during a marathon session at the State Department led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, with Trump briefed by phone aboard Air Force One.
A final decision was made during an evening conference call once Trump return to the White House on Friday evening, and shortly thereafter he fired off his tweet announcing the deal.
The decision was a relief for Trump aides— nearly all of whom were united in opposition to the tariffs, disagreeing on principle and in practice. It also came as relief for Republican lawmakers and their allies in the business community, who’d spent the week burning up White House phones and personally nudging the president to back down. In a rare rebuke, several had threatened to block the effort, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying publicly there was little support.
Still, one Republican who discussed the situation on condition of anonymity said the outreach from Capitol Hill appeared to play far less a role than the concessions made by the Mexicans — particularly the agreement to expand the remain-in-Mexico policy.
Critics, meanwhile, pointed out that little announced on Friday appeared to be new.
A joint statement released by the State Department said Mexico had agreed to “take unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration,” including the deployment of its new National Guard, with a focus on its porous southern border with Guatemala. Mexico, however, had already intended to deploy the National Guard to the southern border and had made that clear to U.S. officials.
The U.S. also hailed Mexico’s agreement to embrace the expansion of a program under which some asylum-seekers are returned to Mexico as they wait out their cases. But the remain-in-Mexico program was implemented earlier this year and, from the start, U.S. officials have vowed to rapidly expand it, even without Mexico’s public support. Indeed, officials from the Department of Homeland Security were working to spread the program, which has already led to the return of about 10,000 to Mexico, before the latest blowup, though it has been plagued with scheduling glitches and delays. Immigration activists also have challenged the program in court, arguing that it violates migrants’ legal rights. An appeals court recently overturned a federal judge who had blocked the program as it makes its way through the courts.
Administration officials noted the deal leaves open the possibility of “further actions” if “the measures adopted do not have the expected results.” And while the “third safe country” agreement did not make it into the deal, it is something officials plan to continue to discuss in the coming months.
The reversal nonetheless sparked mocking from Democrats, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who sarcastically declared Friday “an historic night!” after Trump claimed the deal would “greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also weighed in, calling the tariff threat “reckless” and panning the remain-in-Mexico policy as a violation of migrants’ legal rights.
“Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy,” she said.