The acrid political atmosphere between the United States and Mexico created by the issue of immigrant deportation dominated the visit to Mexico City by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and John Kelly, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The shifting U.S. stance toward immigration enforcement will play a significant part in shaping Mexico's domestic political landscape and will affect future relations between the two countries.
The most recent dispute between Mexico City and Washington revolves around memos written by Kelly to his department and made public Monday concerning how to implement executive orders issued by President Donald Trump that give authorities greater latitude to deport foreigners who break U.S. immigration law. Under Kelly's instructions, the United States could send those people to the contiguous country nearest to their point of detention — meaning Mexico in tens of thousands of cases — until their immigration hearings were resolved, although he said people whose cases were decided would be transported directly back to their home countries.
The policy outlined by Kelly, who at a press conference Thursday promised to prioritize the deportation of criminals and take a cooperative approach with Mexico in the matter, opens the door to increased deportation of Mexican-born migrants. This will create a number of headaches for authorities in Mexico City. Adding thousands of deportees to the ranks of the unemployed is certainly an unappealing prospect for Mexican officials, who are already dealing with federal budget cutbacks spurred by slumping oil prices. But increased deportations of Mexican citizens also could damage the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ahead of the 2018 presidential race by creating the impression among voters that the PRI's leaders are weak in the face of unfavorable U.S. policy. This could drive up support for opposition parties such as the PRI's traditional foe, the National Action Party (PAN), or the upstart National Regeneration Movement (Morena), founded by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The prospect of voters flocking to Morena is a major concern for Mexico's business and political elite. The private sector knows what to expect from PRI or PAN, but Morena has never held power. Lopez Obrador is not exactly a political outsider: He was previously mayor of Mexico City under the Party of the Democratic Revolution and twice ran unsuccessfully for president. But 2018 could produce a different result for him; polls indicate that he has the support of around a third of the electorate, and the current tussle with the United States could add to his popularity. But even as Lopez Obrador has publicly signaled a shift to the center by meeting with business leaders, economic and regulatory risks abound concerning his election. For example, he has repeatedly vowed to slow the pace of the country's 2013 energy reforms, which opened exploration and production in Mexico's oil and natural gas sectors to private foreign investment. Most recently, a Lopez Obrador spokesman said that if elected, the Moreno leader would halt Mexico City's oil and gas licensing rounds and review existing agreements. Lopez Obrador most likely made the promise in the hopes of bolstering support in areas hit hard by the downsizing of state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos and then riding a wave of nationalism to the presidency.
While his shot at the energy reforms may merely represent populist rhetoric intended to appeal to voters already angry with the government, it suggests that if Lopez Obrador assumes office, he would use his presidential powers to slow the pace of private capital entering Mexico's energy sector. This in turn raises the specter of political gridlock and infighting at a time when Mexico can ill afford it. With the United States pushing the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), such a divisive energy issue could be in front of Mexico's congress at the same time it might need to address changes in the trade status with the United States, a priority that congressional infighting could delay.
But aside from the political difficulties that changes in U.S. immigration policy could create, another angle of the issue has raised concerns in Mexico City. Accepting deported migrants from other countries (mostly those from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) without any promise of assistance from the United States would put Mexico in a difficult position. Though Mexico would accept its own citizens, the establishment of communities of largely jobless, sometimes criminal migrants from other nations (many of whom would never leave Mexico) would create long-term difficulties for the country. The number of Central Americans attempting to enter the United States illegally has surged, and the economic pressures that influence them to cross Mexico's southern border are not diminishing. That, combined with the Mexican administration's fears of a voter backlash if it acquiesces to the DHS directive, makes it no surprise that Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said Mexico would not entertain cooperating on that portion of the new orders, although Mexico could face U.S. pressure to give in.
Discussions on security issues, particularly on ways to counter illegal migration and organized crime, will continue parallel to the NAFTA discussions, slated to begin in June. Before then, one of the main tools Mexico will use to shape negotiations on security and economic matters will be the threat of refusing to help the United States rein in illegal migration. Mexico has already suggested that it would reduce security cooperation if the United States pushes for changes to NAFTA that are unfavorable to Mexico. But putting that threat into practice will be a risky proposition for Mexico. The Trump administration can retaliate by cutting off most U.S. government assistance, a threat set up by the language of the DHS memos instructing agencies to identify any sources of aid to Mexico.
The ultimate intent of such a policy seems to be to pressure Mexico to accept U.S. demands, whether to agree to the suggestion that Mexico fund a border wall between the countries or to concede points in NAFTA negotiations. A reduction in Mexico's security cooperation with the United States, whether on intelligence gathering or migrant interdiction, could lead to retaliation from Washington, which could replace NAFTA with a bilateral trade agreement. The demise of NAFTA would result in more uncertainty for Mexico, which would find itself in the difficult position of negotiating a bilateral trade deal at a time when political relations with the United States are at an ebb.
Mexico's government would probably want to divorce security cooperation from the economic talks, but doing so may no longer be possible. As the negotiations go on, long-standing security issues such as migration and drug trafficking (and Mexican cooperation on those issues) will intersect with the purely economic aspects of Mexico's relationship with the United States. Mexico would clearly be at a disadvantage in NAFTA negotiations, but for now, Mexico City will wait to see what constraints limiting the White House's ability to act on NAFTA present themselves. The future of NAFTA is uncertain, even among Washington policymakers, and Mexican leaders likely hope that uncertainty will give way to a renegotiation of the pact, rather than to a rapid deterioration in economic and political ties.