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U.S. and Mexico strike a deal on migration, staving off Trump's tariff plan

U.S. and Mexico strike a deal on migration, staving off Trump's tariff plan
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)

After marathon talks and threats of economic sanctions, Mexico and the United States have reached an agreement to curb immigration and avert punitive U.S. tariffs on Mexican exports, President Trump tweeted Friday.

The deal defuses, at least for now, widespread concerns of economic upheaval on both sides of the border if Trump carried out his threats to impose escalating sanctions on all imports from Mexico starting Monday, potentially disrupting billions of dollars of trade.

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In a tweet Friday night, shortly after he returned to Washington from a five-day visit to the United Kingdom and France, Trump said that the two sides had signed an agreement and that the tariffs were “hereby indefinitely suspended.”

Mexico, he wrote, “has agreed to take strong measures” to stem migration through Mexico and to the U.S. border. “This is being done to greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States,” he added.

Trump was facing stiff pressure from Republicans in Congress, business leaders, the car industry and border states who opposed the tariffs.

The U.S. State Department said the two sides agreed to more robust efforts by Mexico to block asylum seekers from reaching the U.S., including stepped-up patrol of the borders and a quicker return to Mexico of asylum seekers who reach the United States.

"The governments of the United States and Mexico will work together to immediately implement a durable solution," the State Department said.

"There will be no application of tariffs," Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Friday night via Twitter.

White House officials did not respond to requests for information on the shift in policy after insisting all week that Trump was likely to impose the trade penalties.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican and close Trump ally, tweeted “congratulations” on reaching a deal that he said would “substantially reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming through Mexico.”

Democrats were more skeptical that Trump had achieved anything. “Crawling back off the limb and, predictably, declaring victory,” tweeted David Axelrod, President Obama’s former political advisor.

Mexican diplomats and trade officials, meeting with their U.S. counterparts, worked all week to highlight steps they were already taking to curb the surge in Central American migrants fleeing their home countries toward the United States.

But Trump administration officials insisted that Mexico become a haven for asylum seekers, blocking them from traveling to the United States. This remained a key sticking point.

Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador both had expressed reserved optimism that a compromise was possible earlier Friday. But the two sides had key differences on immigration.

Ebrard, the foreign secretary, met with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and other officials at the State Department for more than 10 hours Friday as the two sides considered how best to reduce the migrant flow.

Ebrard informed the U.S. delegation of a 4-month-old Mexican operation to deploy some units of a 60,000-member National Guard at Mexico’s southern borders to assist in recent efforts to detain and deport Central Americans.

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Mexican officials have complained that the Trump administration has failed to acknowledge its efforts in trying to choke off the flow of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Trump last week threatened to impose the 5% tariff on Mexican imports, with monthly increases until the tariffs top out at 25% in October, unless Mexico does more to stop the growing flow of Central American migrants heading north to seek asylum in the United States.

Earlier Friday, on Twitter, Trump had said there was a “good chance” that the two sides would make a deal to waive the tariffs and prevent consumer prices from rising on both sides of the border.

“If we are able to make the deal with Mexico, & there is a good chance that we will, they will begin purchasing Farm & Agricultural products at very high levels, starting immediately,” Trump tweeted from Air Force One as he flew back from Ireland after a five-day visit to the United Kingdom and France.

“If we are unable to make the deal, Mexico will begin paying Tariffs at the 5% level on Monday!” Trump added.

Mexico last year was the No. 2 market for U.S. agricultural products, buying $19 billion worth of fruit, vegetables and other products.

Mexico’s agriculture secretary, Victor Villalobos, met this week with his U.S. counterpart, Sonny Perdue. No new trade accords were announced.

In Mexico City earlier Friday, at his daily news conference, Lopez Obrador complained forcefully that the U.S. team continued to see immigration as a law enforcement issue without taking into consideration the hardships that force people to flee home.

“They are not even analyzing the causes, only the effects. They are not taking into account the profound crisis in Central America,” where many people “have no options, no alternatives,” the president said.

“We have been insisting that the causes must be dealt with, that Central America be supported with productive activities, employment, welfare, so that migration is optional, not forced,” he added.

Lopez Obrador, a leftist populist who took office in December, said he would lead a rally Saturday in the northern Mexican city of Tijuana to “defend Mexico’s destiny” and to announce what he suggested were new ideas on immigration.

He invited Mexican lawmakers, religious leaders, Supreme Court justices, governors and other dignitaries to attend.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policy has targeted asylum, the legal protection of migrants fleeing violence or other dire domestic conditions. Asylum claims, which are a legal form of entering the country, have surged recently, but Trump has denounced them as a hoax.

Mexico has repeatedly rejected a Trump demand that it be declared a “safe third country,” which would require migrants from Central America and elsewhere to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than continuing north to the United States. Trump administration officials think the designation would significantly reduce the number of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

For the first time Friday, Lopez Obrador did not rule out the “safe third country” measure but did not express support for it.

It would be politically toxic for his government to enact the measure, in part because critics would view it as doing Trump’s dirty work. The Mexican side might be willing to accept a watered-down version that encourages some asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, as it has done before.

Economists, many Republican lawmakers and business leaders have warned that the escalating tariffs would raise prices for U.S. consumers and damage both nations’ economies.

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The U.S. imported around $350 billion in goods from Mexico last year, from car parts and TV sets to fresh fruits, vegetables and tequila.

The move also jeopardizes the updated North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico and championed by Trump. It still must be ratified by the legislative bodies in each country.

“It is unfortunate,” Lopez Obrador said, “that migration issues are being mixed with trade issues.”

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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