WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump touted on Saturday (Jun 8) his last-minute deal averting tariffs on Mexico, a plan economists warned would have been disastrous for both countries, saying the agreement will be a big success if America's southern neighbour cracks down on illegal immigration as promised.
With Trump poised to slap five per cent tariffs on all Mexican goods starting Monday, senior officials announced an agreement late Friday night.
Under the deal, Mexico agreed to expand its policy of taking back migrants, most of them from violence-riven Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as the United States processes their asylum claims.
Mexico will also use its newly created National Guard to crack down on illegal migration, in particular along its southern border with Guatemala, a gateway for poor Central Americans hoping to reach the US.
In turn, Mexico managed to avoid a proposal it had continually rejected - that it process asylum claims on its own soil before migrants reach the United States.
"Mexico will try very hard, and if they do that, this will be a very successful agreement for both the United States and Mexico!" Trump tweeted early Saturday.
Later, he added: "Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!"
For many, it was vintage Trump behavior: trigger a crisis and let it simmer for a while, then declare it resolved and take credit.
The New York Times reported Saturday that most of the measures that Mexico signed on to in Friday's deal had already been agreed upon in prior negotiations.
Some advocacy groups in Mexico criticised the deal, saying the country would be militarising its border with Guatemala to detain innocent women and children when the real problem - grinding poverty and desperation fueling the exodus north - goes unaddressed.
"I think deploying the National Guard on the border will change nothing," said Olguita Sanchez, who runs a shelter in southern Chiapas state. "People will keep leaving. This is not going to stop them."
Trump, she insisted, "is pressing Mexico but he should be pressing the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, who do nothing for their people."
Activist Luis Rey Villagran said the deal criminalises migration.
"In this agreement, the migrants are currency," he said. "The National Guard should be combating drug traffickers, not focusing on stopping children and women who are trying to fulfil their dreams."
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who had planned to head Saturday to the border city of Tijuana to show solidarity ahead of the tariffs, said that his trip would now be to celebrate.
Trump, who ran for president pushing a tough line on immigration, had vowed to raise tariffs as high as 25 per cent unless Mexico - which exports US$350 billion in goods each year to the United States - takes further action against migrants.
The tariffs would have clobbered Mexico's economy, which is integrated with the United States and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement, with experts warning of a recession.
Economists also warned the tariffs would hurt US companies that have set up complex supply chains across the borders with Mexico and Canada, leading to higher prices for US consumers for everything from tequila to refrigerators as importers pass along the cost of tariffs.
The tariffs also drew unusually strong opposition from Trump's fellow Republicans, especially lawmakers from farm states who worried about losing their second-largest international market.
Mexico pledged in Friday's agreement to take "unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration," saying the two governments would "work together to immediately implement a durable solution."
Mexico said it would deploy National Guard troops throughout the country, "giving priority to its southern border" with Guatemala. It will also target human smuggling and trafficking groups.
The United States, making official a policy that has triggered opposition in both countries, said it would systematically send back asylum seekers who cross the border, with Mexico offering them jobs, health care and education.
Thousands have already been sent back, prompting criticism from human rights campaigners that the migrants will lack due process and face danger in Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juarez.
Trump, who has declared a crisis at the border and earlier deployed troops, says that asylum seekers can too easily slip into the population while on US soil.
In the past, most undocumented immigrants were men seeking work, but a majority of recent arrivals are families or unaccompanied children.
The number of migrants detained or blocked at the border surged to 144,000 in May, triple the level a year earlier.
Democrats denounced Trump for taking the United States and Mexico to the brink.
"Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy," top Democratic lawmaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
"Congress will continue to hold the Trump Administration accountable for its failures to address the humanitarian situation at our southern border," she said. "President Trump must stop sabotaging good-faith, constructive and bipartisan efforts in Congress to address this complex problem in a humane manner that honors and respects our most cherished national values."