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Trump’s Twitter defense of Mexico agreement is short on specifics

Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Martha Bárcena suggested in an interview Sunday with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that additional agreements could surface beyond what the nations included in the joint statement. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo

President Donald Trump spent much of this weekend tweeting that Mexico will take “strong measures” against northward migration as a result of Friday’s trade deal, and bewailing the “Corrupt Media” for underplaying those measures’ significance.

But Trump didn’t specify any Mexican concessions on immigration, referring vaguely to unnamed “things we had, or didn’t have.” And the one concession the president did specify (in a Saturday tweet), concerning agricultural trade, did not appear in the joint statement issued Friday.

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Neither the White House, nor the State Department, nor the Homeland Security Department volunteered any clarification to the president’s tweets Sunday, and those agencies, along with the Mexican embassy, did not answer POLITICO’s request Sunday for comment.

Trump “got a public relations victory, but does anybody believe that Central Americans from the Northern Triangle are going to stop walking north tomorrow?” said John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama and current Univision political analyst. “He did next to nothing to address the underlying cause of the problem.”

At best, it appears, Mexico may yield more significant ground in continuing negotiations between the two countries.

In Sunday tweets, the president wrote that “some things not mentioned in yesterday [sic] press release, one in particular, were agreed upon” and “will be announced at the appropriate time.” Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Martha Bárcena suggested in an interview Sunday with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that additional agreements could surface beyond what the nations included in the joint statement.

President Donald Trump

“There are a lot of the details that we discussed during the negotiations and during the conversations that we didn’t put in the declaration,” Bárcena said.

But the components of the deal announced Friday largely piggybacked existing commitments.

Two immigration-related measures that attracted some attention were Mexico’s decision to deploy members of its National Guard to stem the northward flow of migrants through its territory and U.S. expansion of its “remain in Mexico” policy, which forces certain non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the resolution of their cases in the U.S.

But both these initiatives were either agreed upon or under discussion before last week’s intense negotiations. A provision in the joint statement that calls for the U.S. to assist development efforts in Central America doesn’t elaborate any specific administration commitment, and the Friday document made no reference to restoring hundreds of millions in funding to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that Trump ordered cut in March.

Most notably, Mexico did not agree in the document to any “safe third country” asylum pact that would require migrants to seek asylum in Mexico if they first pass through that country.

The Trump administration considers an asylum deal a major priority, and pressed for it in negotiations. The Mexican delegation, however, thought such a pact would be “extremely costly and burdensome for Mexico,” according to a person familiar with the talks. In addition, a “safe third country” agreement would be unlikely to gain approval from the Mexican Senate.

President Donald Trump

“MEXICO HAS AGREED TO IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!” President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday. | Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

Left without an asylum deal, the U.S. declared unilaterally Friday that it will expand its “remain in Mexico” program across the entire southwest border. Under the program — which has been active since January — certain non-Mexican migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico pending the resolution of their asylum case in the U.S.

The Mexican government said last week that more than 10,000 people have been forced to wait in Mexico under the program, which has been implemented at and between various ports of entry in California, New Mexico and Texas.

A U.S. expansion of “remain in Mexico” was likely with or without Trump’s tariff threat, according to a current DHS official. Increasing the scope of the program — formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols — has been a priority for several weeks.

“If what they got out of this was an agreement to expand MPP, that doesn’t sound like very much to me,” the official said.

While the Mexican government depicts “remain in Mexico” as a unilateral move by the U.S., it has agreed to accept migrants and coordinate transit between countries for humanitarian reasons. Whether a border-wide expansion of the program is viable for either country, though, remains unclear. In recent weeks, DHS officials have scrambled to solve logistical hurdles to a broader implementation. Some of the concerns include a lack of access to court space in remote border areas and limited availability of government lawyers to handle cases.

“There are a lot of challenges to it that I don’t think are going to be surmounted tomorrow,” the DHS official said.

Donald Trump

Moreover, the program remains the subject of ongoing litigation. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed it to go into effect temporarily in May, the case is still ongoing, and the program could face more legal opposition as it expands.

Even without a “safe third country” deal, the Trump administration could forge ahead with a similar policy in coming weeks. Trump has weighed the use of a fast-track regulation to block asylum to migrants who pass through another country en route to the U.S. The regulation almost certainly would face court challenges, but could force even more migrants back to Mexico.

Mexico’s decision to deploy troops from its newly formed National Guard to stem the flow of migrants northward has been under discussion for months, but had not been finalized, according to one current and one former DHS official.

“They never committed, but did begin some checkpoints in the interior,” said the former official.

The negotiations last week cemented the Mexican government’s commitment to use troops to deal with illegal immigration, the officials said. However, the idea of deploying security forces to secure Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala was broached months earlier.

Mexican Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero said in late March that the Mexican government would send federal police to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a relatively narrow point in southeastern Mexico where authorities could potentially intercept migrants. The topic also surfaced during a March meeting in Miami with former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, POLITICO confirmed Saturday.

The one concession that Trump specified in his weekend tweets concerned Mexican purchase of U.S. agricultural products. But this was not addressed in the joint agreement put out Friday.

“MEXICO HAS AGREED TO IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!” the president tweeted Saturday.

Bárcena, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said she expects Mexico to increase purchases of U.S. farm products and other manufactured goods now that the president has dropped his threat to impose a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods. But that’s simple economics, not the result of any agreement.

“Is trade on agricultural products going to grow?” she said. “Yes, it is going to grow.“

Ken Smith Ramos, a former Mexican official who was the country’s chief trade negotiator on the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, called Trump’s tweet “a bit strange,” since under NAFTA there already are no tariffs on nearly all agricultural products between the United States and Mexico.

In addition, because Mexico is a free-market economy, the government is in no position to engineer increased purchases of U.S. farm goods. As in the U.S., purchasing decisions are made individually by private-sector firms.

Mexican officials have little incentive to publicly contradict Trump’s claim of increased agricultural sales. “They’re just trying to say anything to come out of the mess,” Smith Ramos said.

The Mexican government could, however, increase demand for one particular U.S. farm product — corn — by as much as $ 2 billion annually if it were to expand use of ethanol-blend gasoline into Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, where it is currently prohibited, according to Smith Ramos.

Smith Ramos said a technical regulation is already under consideration to make the change and that it would “create a huge market for ethanol” in Mexico.

Trump’s threats to use tariffs to get his way on non-trade issues like immigration may weaken congressional support for Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. House Democrats are already balking at key provisions of the USMCA, delaying its consideration in Congress.

Trump, meanwhile, kept open Sunday the possibility of slapping future tariffs on Mexico if there is not a significant drop in Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

“We can always go back to our previous, very profitable, position of Tariffs,” he wrote on Twitter. “But I don’t believe that will be necessary.”

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