In a last-minute move to stave off what would have been economically catastrophic tariffs threatened by President Donald Trump, the American government announced Friday that Mexico had agreed to deploy its brand-new national guard to patrol its own southern border and to house migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. on its own soil.
In other words, Mexico agreed to nothing that it hadn’t agreed to before Trump's threats.
The response to the latest tirade by the most anti-Mexican president since maybe James Polk (the 19th-century one-termer who literally started a war with the country) was perhaps to be expected; much of Trump's own party opposed his plan. Still, he had said that he was ready to raise tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican imports — starting with a 5 percent increase on Monday — unless Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador helped him win re-election by stemming the seemingly unstoppable flow of migrants.
The power dynamics were just too clear: In 2018, imports from Mexico were $346.5 billion, a 60.5 percent increase since 2008, and a 768 percent jump since 1993. Mexico’s total global exports are about $409 billion. The economies of the U.S. and Mexico are deeply tied
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So can Mexico keep more asylum-seekers there instead of the U.S.? Sure thing. Trump wants more and more Mexican troops at the Guatemalan border? You got it.
Of course, Mexico has actually been placating the U.S. appetite for immigration enforcement for years now. Mexico has deported more migrants back to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras than the United States since 2015, according to Migration Policy. Mexico still honors agreements like the Mérida Initiative that call “for better infrastructure and technology to strengthen and modernize border security at northern and southern land crossings, ports and airports.” The real U.S. southern border has already been extended into Mexico for years — a fact Trump doesn’t want to let people know, since it would fly in the face of his anti-Mexican positioning.
In his xenophobic eyes, there is an “invasion” at the border and it is all Mexico’s fault — and many people in this country believe him. The anti-Mexico racist trope with which he started his campaign (the “rapists” and “criminals”) devolved into an ongoing demand for a paid-for border wall that incorrectly painted Mexico as some lawless nation and has now turned into a diplomatic crisis from which López Obrador will not easily extricate himself.
But as powerless as López Obrador seems to be right now, Mexico still has a golden opportunity to radically change the narrative, if he would realize that siding with the United States on immigration enforcement — and essentially becoming an extension of U.S. border control — plays into the same policy that has militarized and criminalized migration in the Western hemisphere.
If López Obrador were truly a populist leftist, he would take the migration fight to the world stage. He would remind people that U.S. policies has destroyed the civic institutions and economies of the Northern Triangle — and Mexico — and that the vast majority of migrants fleeing the violence and poverty compounded by the action of the United States are actually families and kids.
Instead of arresting immigration activists, for example, López Obrador could become the face of real migration rights. Instead of acquiescing to tariff threats, the Mexican government could work with American business owners and CEOs to apply serious pressure on the Trump administration — which organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have hardly done.
Or he could take the fight to Trump and hold rallies in cities like Los Angeles, Houston or Phoenix to prove that Mexico is an integral part of U.S. culture and society and always has been. Currently, people of Mexican descent make up 11.4 percent of the U.S. population — close to 37 million people — and Trump is demonizing them regularly.
Or the Mexican president could take a page from Trump's own playbook and encourage an economic boycott of the U.S. In 2017, close to 20 million Mexicans visited the United States for business or tourism. As punitive as this might seem, it would at least serve a symbolic play against Trump, signaling that Mexico won’t surrender its sovereignty to an American bully.
López Obrador has to do something, or else his legacy will be defined by allowing Trump to win without putting up a real fight, just like Enrique Peña Nieto did before him. It would mean that people will believe that, when faced with a potential crisis, Mexico caved in to Trump’s xenophobia.
Mexico may never pay for a wall, but it sure is paying for something with its dignity. And if the Chinese can play hardball with the America president, so could Mexico. The question though is simple: Will Mexico ever really want to, or will it remain a complicit partner of Trump’s anti-Mexican agenda?