Media and Public Debate Over ‘Trump Victory’ in Mexico Trade Negotiations

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, listens to a question during a news conference at the Embassy of Mexico in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It seemed late last week that US consumers and manufacturing businesses would be forced to make adjustments Monday in the face of tariff hikes against Mexico, one of the nations’ most significant trade partners. A deal finalized at the eleventh hour averted the five percent tax threatened by President Donald Trump and secured Mexican expansions in managing the massive northern movement of Central and South American refugees.

The agreement with the US will force Mexico to curb the flow of asylum-seekers coming to the US border and will expand Mexico’s role in housing, feeding, and medically treating those seeking asylum in the US by keeping them on Mexican soil while their asylum claims are pending. Mexico had previously offered in negotiations to do more to assist US efforts, but the agreement made Friday will expand on what Mexico was previously obligated to do.

There is fierce public and media debate regarding whether Trump actually secured new promises from Mexico. Some outlets are reporting that all of Mexico’s concessions were previously offered in trade negotiations but that the US had not agreed to the terms, while others are celebrating a Trump victory.

According to Vox, “[e]ssentially, Trump finally agreed to accept commitments that Mexico made late last year, back when Kirstjen Nielsen was still secretary of homeland security.” Other outlets have pointed to the fact that Mexico pledged to increase patrols and arrests along its side of the border with the US, and Mexican officials have asked for location coordinates of the busiest crossing points used by smugglers – points Mexico had not previously agreed to.

This much is clear: the Mexican government has now agreed to accelerate the Migrant Protection Protocols more quickly than before, which could help reduce what President Trump calls the “catch and release” of migrants in the US, by requiring asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in the US.

The struggle over perception is likely heightened because the political optic of the deal may be one of its most significant lasting effects. The Trump administration has claimed victory in the trade-and-immigration negotiations with Mexican officials, and if public perception lines up with Trump’s claim, he will have a clear example of his “successful negotiation skills” to tout in the upcoming presidential election.

Any serious media credit to this narrative could pose problems for the more than 20 Democrats running to replace him next year. One candidate, Joe Biden, said in a speech in Iowa Monday that Trump was forced to back off of threats of tariff increases against Mexico “because he was likely to lose.

Trump responded by calling the leading Democrat in the field “a dummy.”

Per the agreement, Mexico has pledged to work toward securing its southern border by deploying armed National Guard troops to aid in stopping the influx of crossings. The nation will accept more returned asylum-seekers from the US than previously agreed upon more quickly than previously promised and will take over the responsibility for ensuring their safety and health. Mexico has said as recently as last week that they were unable and unwilling to accept the terms now agreed on. 

It was reported last week that the United States Immigration Courts have a backlog of more than 900,000 cases. In an effort to alleviate overcrowding at detention facilities along the border, US officials have begun moving detained asylum seekers to other parts of the country in large numbers.  

Trump has promised that a “secret” part of the agreement will be disclosed at a later date. The administration has been pushing Mexico to enforce agreements it made with the UN under the Refugee Convention to be a safe country for asylum seekers and pressuring the country to agree to join the US and Canada as “safe third countries,” a move Mexico has firmly said it won’t agree to.

Trump still hasn’t taken tariffs off the table. The agreement must be ratified by the Mexican legislative bodies before going into effect. Should they fail to do so, Trump has promised immediate tariffs.

Democrats in Washington D.C. are searching for ways to invalidate the presidential declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, a key to the ability of a president to raise taxes on trade outside Congressional approval. Overturning the declaration is unlikely, as Democrats would need two-thirds support in both houses. Very few Republicans have stated they would be willing to vote in favor of the overrule unless tariffs imposed by the administration clearly were hurting Americans.

Leading Republicans who support Trump’s use of tariffs believe the victory over immigration with Mexico may foreshadow victory in a more important trade battle: renegotiating the massive trade difference with China.