Did the U.S. and Mexico Just Link Their Immigration Policies?

The president sees his deal with Mexico as a victory—but he might not be pleased with the possibilities it opens up.

A child looks through the bars of a wall from the side of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in this picture taken from the side of El Paso, Texas.
A child looks through the bars of a wall from the side of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in this picture taken from the side of El Paso, Texas. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

A tactical win can constitute a strategic blunder, a battle won that makes it more likely you lose the war. President Donald Trump and his most ardent supporters may in time come to feel this way about the agreement the administration reached with the Mexican government earlier this month.

The June 7 deal may seem to amount to a big victory for Trump, the result of a Tweetzkrieg threatening to impose tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico agreed to accomplish within 45 days what the U.S. has failed to do for years: “to sufficiently achieve results in addressing the flow of immigrants from Central America to the southern border.” Perhaps even Trump was surprised by Mexico’s readiness to give in to his demands, and mobilize forces to slam the door shut on Central Americans seeking to make their way up to the United States. He still hasn’t gotten Mexico to pay for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Trump can plausibly say that he is forcing Mexico itself to become the wall. Moreover, as the analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor noted on an influential Mexican cable-news show, the Mexican government’s submission to Trump’s tantrum sets Mexico up to be the U.S. president’s piñata during his long reelection campaign.

But both sides could be missing the real significance of the accord: Trump has in effect ended the traditional cordoning-off of immigration issues from the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship. He has, perhaps unwittingly, opened the door to recognition that the North American trading bloc is as much about people as it is about goods and services.

As ratified during the Clinton administration, the original NAFTA created a trilateral trade bloc removing most tariffs and obstacles to commerce within North America, and set rules concerning the rights of foreign investors in each country. Issues of intellectual property, the environment, and labor standards within each country were touched upon in the original treaty and expanded upon in last year’s renegotiation—the so-called USMCA—currently under consideration by the Congress. But other than some minor provisions for high-end professional and investor visas, both agreements were silent on the question of immigration. Protectionist and nativist skeptics of NAFTA feared the I-word (integration, across borders) and zealously guarded against it; business interests figured that, because they already had no problem attracting workers to cross the border unlawfully for work, they had best not go there.

NAFTA didn’t necessarily have to create unfettered freedom of labor movement, as the European Union did, but it should and could have done two things, reflecting the close, symbiotic nature of the relationship between the three societies and economies.

First, the United States should have adjusted upward the number of visas made available to Mexicans. Because it did not, Mexicans who came to the U.S. in pursuit of work had little choice but to live in the shadows. And remember, Mexicans weren’t crossing the borders in such large numbers during the 1990s in pursuit of public welfare or colder weather. They were lured over (many recruited at home) with jobs by employers all too happy to rely on undocumented labor, entire industries that would collapse if the U.S. deported them all overnight.

Second, the three North American partners should have jointly created policies for addressing immigration from the rest of the world. The number of Mexicans crossing the border without authorization peaked more than a decade ago, and the overall number of unauthorized Mexicans has been decreasing during the period Trump has been ratcheting up his rhetoric about all those “bad hombres.” But the surge in Central Americans seeking asylum in North America does pose a shared, regional challenge that points to the need for an EU-like coordinated approach. Migration has stressed Europe’s union as well, of course, but the concept underlying the Continent’s Schengen (establishing the notion of one border between signatory states) and Dublin Agreements (stipulating that asylum seekers must request asylum in the first EU member state they arrive in) makes a great deal of sense.

North America today is criminally unprepared to handle the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing their countries. Both Mexicans and Americans have been shocked in recent months by the recurring stories of families separated at the border, the conditions immigrant kids face in detention centers (with U.S. officials quibbling over whether they deserve soap and toothpaste), and the scenes of large caravans of Central Americans making their way north to seek asylum in the United States. This week, shock turned to utter horror as newspapers featured heart-wrenching front-page photos of an El Salvadoran father and his 2-year-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, and an equally poignant shot of a Haitian migrant and her small child begging for help in Tapachula, Chiapas.

This awful state of affairs could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if North America had earlier adopted a coherent regional approach to migration. A North American variant of the European approach—humor me for a minute by pretending we had visionary, internationalist leaders in Ottawa, Washington, and Mexico City—would entail having an agreed-upon apportionment of outside asylum seekers among the three partners; a blended corps of Mexican, U.S., and Canadian customs officials along Mexico’s southern border and at other sensitive North American ports of entry; a realistic adjustment of the levels of legal migration within North America; and finally, a comprehensive development package for Central America. Regardless of your views on what the appropriate level of immigration is for the United States, or how expansively you want to think of asylum, there is no argument for forcing people to run an unsafe gantlet across Mexico in search of a right they might not be afforded.

Despite the widespread outrage, we will have to await another administration for a more coherent approach to these regional migration challenges. But in his own bullying manner, pursuing an ostensibly radically different outcome, it is Trump who may have taken the first step in irrevocably linking U.S. and Mexican immigration policies, as they pertain to the rest of the world.

The “supplementary agreement” to the June 7 deal established that Mexico will consider a “safe third country” arrangement if the situation doesn’t improve during this 45-day probationary period. Long resisted by Mexican governments, such an arrangement would require those seeking asylum to request it in the first “safe” country they cross. Mexico, that is, would become the destination, not a transit corridor, for all Guatemalans fleeing across their border.

But the supplementary deal also uses language even an ardent cross-border integrationist in Brussels would recognize. It contains a call to negotiate a binding agreement that would address “burden sharing” and “assignment of responsibility for processing refugee status claims of migrants,” and a call for “a regional approach” to dealing with third-nation immigrants. A seed, perhaps, for more fruitful days ahead, if one inadvertently planted.