Will Mexico Build a Wall on Its Southern Border And Make Trump Pay for It?


1:57 PM, Jan 31, 2017 | By Ethan Epstein

A report in a Mexican newspaper earlier this month suggested that, as part of a mooted NAFTA re-negotiation, the Trump administration may offer to help Mexico bulk up border security along its southern frontier with Guatemala.

The report is unconfirmed; calls and emails to the Trump administration from THE WEEKLY STANDARD went unanswered, and the new president's reported adviser on all things Mexico declined to comment. However, it's a notion that makes a good deal of sense. Trump's opponents delight in pointing out that illegal Mexican immigration into the United States has declined vastly in recent years. But not only is that argument overstated, it's also a non sequitur: Last year, more than 43,000 families and 18,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were caught at the U.S.-Mexican border, notes the Financial Times. It's Central Americans passing through Mexico who now make up a large percentage of illegal migrants into the United States. In 2014, for the first time ever, more non-Mexicans than Mexican nationals were detained trying to enter the United States at our southern border.

Neither the United States nor Mexico is happy about this state of affairs. Indeed, just a few years ago, the Mexican government openly and frustratedly admitted that it lacked the resources to police its southern border. So on its face, this looks like the perfect opportunity for our dealmaker in chief: He builds a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in return for some modicum of Mexican cooperation at turning back illegal migrants, he helps the Mexicans police their own southern edge.

All of that depends on relations between Washington and Mexico City becoming a little less acrimonious, however. Right now, they're at something of a nadir. Mexican nationalism, stirred on by Trump's provocations, is at a higher "point than it's been since the 1980s," says Guillermo Velasco, a Mexico expert and professor at Tarleton State University. Given that said Mexican nationalism has gone hand-in-hand with anti-Americanism for the past hundred years, that will make reaching an accord difficult for any Mexican leader, let alone an unpopular one like current president Enrique PeŮa Nieto. He can't afford to look politically weak while the Mexican populace fumes at Trump.

And Trump's gambit also relies on the Mexicans not realizing they have quite a bit of leverage in this situation. As Diana Negroponte, a Mexico scholar at the Wilson Center put it to me, "The capacity to open the Mexican southern border to Central American migrants is leverage [over America] that [the Mexicans] will exercise if need be." Velasco agrees: "I think the Mexicans will use this issue" to push for more favorable terms from Trump, he says. In other words, until Trump builds his big, beautiful wall, the Mexicans still have the whip hand. One wonders whether they've been cracking The Art of the Deal down at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.


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