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Trump’s Bullying Won’t Fix the Migrant Crisis

Originally published by The New York Times

 Angelica López crouched beside the train tracks that run through this sweltering city in southern Mexico, cradling her 2-year-old daughter, calling to her 7-year-old son not to stray too far from her. After they were stopped by Mexican federal police officers while trying to board a freight train, they’d slept on the mud, watching out for more police. They hoped to get on the next train north.

Going back to her home in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, is not an option, Ms. López, who is 23 and a single mother, told me. Two weeks ago, she explained, gang members came to her house to demand that she and her cousin become girlfriends of the gun-toting thugs. Shocked and terrified, they ran north, crossing first the border into Guatemala and then the Suchiate River into Mexico.

Sitting among other migrants scattered around the tracks, the two young women told me they were unsure of their plans: They did not know how to apply for asylum, and had very little money to fund their journey. “We are taking this day by day, hoping God will guide us,” Ms. López said.

When I spoke to them, they hadn’t heard of President Trump’s threats to increase tariffs on Mexican imports if the country didn’t stop migrants from reaching the American border. They had no idea that their personal tragedies had become a bargaining chip in negotiations that threatened to wreak economic havoc in Mexico and to drive up prices in the United States.

Mr. Trump reached an agreement with Mexico on Friday— according to a United States-Mexico Joint Declaration, the country agreed to “take unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration” — but the deal tied together issues that shouldn’t be linked, mixing binational trade with refugees and migrants from third countries. The core subjects of the talks were Central Americans heading north, but they had no representation at the table. Under the agreement, Mexico will crack down further on the poor and desperate seeping over its southern border. But this won’t solve the growing refugee crisis in Latin America.

The problems of violence, poverty and corruption forcing people from their homes in Central America show no signs of abating, while further south in Venezuela, a staggering four million people have fled the country, the United Nations reports. Mexico has promised a surge of militarized police dedicated to stopping migrants who aim to cross its southern border. It has also formalized an agreement to house those asylum seekers while they wait for the United States to process their claims.

Many here breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing Friday’s news that, under the deal, United States tariffs on Mexican products wouldn’t be increased. Many had feared that if Mr. Trump followed through on his threats from last week, Mexico could be pushed into recession. It’s unclear exactly how soon the agreement will be carried out, but what is certain is that Mexico faces two colossal challenges: looking after thousands of American asylum seekers on its northern border, which could mean swelling refugee camps; and sustaining a crackdown in the south in a territory covered by porous rivers, mountains and jungles.

What’s more, Mr. Trump could reignite the threat to put tariffs on Mexican goods at any time. If this does happen, it would only destabilize further an already unstable region.

What seemed to be motivating Mr. Trump’s threats was the promise he made when he ran for president: that he would slash illegal immigration. In May, apprehensions of undocumented migrants on the United States’ southern border were the highest monthly total since 2007.

The type of migration has changed significantly since then. In the early 2000s, many Mexicans headed north to work in industries, such as construction, that boomed before the financial crisis. Today, the numbers are being elevated by Central Americans, among them many small children and people fleeing violence. More than 84,000 of the 132,887 people apprehended for crossing the border illegally in May were captured with family members, while 11,500 were unaccompanied minors.

There are various forces driving families from their homes in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, including poverty, drought and corrupt authoritarian governments. But what really devastates communities is gang violence. This is not only a question of homicides but also of predatory crimes, including extortion, kidnapping and rape, that cause victims such as Ms. López to run for their lives without money or solid plans.

Interviewing dozens of migrants coming through Mexico in recent months, I heard time and time again of brutality that makes them flee despite the terrible conditions on the road. That’s why Ms. López was risking the perilous freight trains with her young children.

Mexico has been stumbling in its response to this northward migration. After President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, he promised humanitarian visas and work for those who came, but then he shifted to mass detentions and deportations. In April, Mexico arrested more than 20,000undocumented migrants, double the number in February. Under the new agreement, it will try to detain many more.

But Mexico may not be willing or able to sustain such a crackdown over years, while the root problems in Central America rage on. More aid to communities, especially for independent organizations that work to stop violence and protect the vulnerable, would be more likely to prevent people fleeing. And it would be cheaper than detaining refugees in wretched conditions.

Putting tariffs on Mexican goods is the worst solution of all. Over the last two decades, Mexico’s economy has become interdependent with the United States’; there was more than $600 billion in cross-border commerce last year. But now it is stuck with a trade partner that can threaten tariffs over nontrade issues at any time.

If Mexico were pushed into recession, it would be even less equipped to deal with the flows of migrants and refugees. Economic downturn could push even more people into crime and weaken the government’s efforts to contain sprawling drug cartels.

President Trump mistakenly believes that America can become stronger through threats and bullying. But the poorer and more unstable it becomes south of the Rio Grande, the bigger the problem for the United States.

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