The Number That Will Tell Us Whether Trump’s Mexico Deal Is Real

President Donald Trump’s patience for his deal averting tariffs on Mexico depends on a quick drop in migration across the U.S. border — something his own administration and political allies see as an unrealistic expectation.

This raises the prospect that Trump’s frustration over immigration will soon reignite, possibly prompting renewed tariff threats against Mexico.

Under the deal, announced late Friday after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on imports from its southern neighbor, Mexico agreed to deploy troops to interdict migrants headed for the U.S. and also keep more of them on its side of the border while their asylum cases are adjudicated. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said his country has 45 days to show the U.S. that additional measures aren’t needed.

The president’s acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Trump ally, both sought to temper expectations for the accord during a hearing on Tuesday — echoing Trump’s own statements that Congress must act to substantially slow the flow of migrants.

“The bottom line is: until we change our laws in two areas, this never stops,” said Graham, who has proposed extending the length of time migrant families can be held in detention and pushing asylum seekers to file claims at a U.S. embassy or in Mexico, instead of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“So Mexico cannot solve this problem by itself,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Tuesday while questioning McAleenan, who replied: “Right.”

Neither side has said how they’ll measure success, but a likely indicator is a monthly U.S. report on migrants apprehended after crossing the southern border, a number that has spiked since January but typically falls in summer.

Secret Annex

The situation is ripe for another showdown. On Tuesday, Trump waved a piece of paper at reporters watching him depart the White House for a trip to Iowa, claiming that it was the first page of a secret annex to his Mexico agreement.

But Ebrard said Tuesday there is no secret deal. He said that if migration into the U.S. isn’t reduced, the White House wants his country to accept asylum applications from Central Americans instead of allowing them to apply across the border, a measure that would require Senate approval in Mexico.

Ebrard said he’s confident the steps Mexico is taking will work. Mexico deployed the National Guard to its southern border Tuesday, he added.

Customs and Border Protection said there were about 133,000 people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in May, more than triple the number in the same month a year ago. In particular, that figure includes a large number of families traveling from Central America through Mexico. The first big test of Trump’s deal will come in July, when CBP updates its data on border apprehensions. “I do not know how high it will go,” McAleenan said Tuesday.

The U.S. is on pace for about 900,000 apprehensions at the border this fiscal year — levels that border officials have said is a crisis that’s straining resources — but the future is difficult to predict. In 2018, migration levels hit a spring peak in May before dipping and rising again in the fall, suggesting this year could also see a June decrease.

“We should expect the number of people crossing the border to drop in the next two months, regardless of the deal, simply because of seasonality,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “At this point, it’s far too early to tell whether the deal made any difference.”

Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Senator from California, said during the hearing that migration levels are still lower than historic totals seen a generation ago — southwest border apprehensions hit an all-time record of 1.6 million in the 2000 fiscal year, U.S. data show.

“It’s really a change in who is coming,” with families replacing single adults, Feinstein said, pressing McAleenan for more information. “These vulnerable parents and children have experienced violence, abuse and poverty in their home countries.”

‘Good Framework’

As part of the agreement with Trump, Mexico agreed to “curb irregular migration” and deploy its national guard, with “priority” to its southern border, and accept more U.S. asylum claimants while they await hearings. The U.S. committed to speed up asylum proceedings, and both countries agreed to continue discussions over the next 90 days while reserving the right to “further actions.”

“It’s going to take hard work to implement it, but I think it’s a good framework,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under Barack Obama who now co-chairs the advisory board of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

Yet he warned that Trump “could go back to these threats, and the cost of that is going to be the same cost you were already seeing last week – great uncertainty for U.S. businesses, Mexico businesses, investment planning, cost to the economy, farmers worried.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, said the deal doesn’t address the core causes of the spike.

“We have a refugee crisis, not an illegal immigration crisis,” he said. “While Mexico escaped this round with vague promises of taking actions they had already agreed to, I suspect Trump is going to come back and say it’s not enough, and demand more, and that we’re going to have a future showdown over this.”

— With assistance by Justin Sink, Daniel Flatley, and Eric Martin

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