STERLING, Va. -- President Donald Trump on Sunday dangled the prospect of renewing his tariff threat against Mexico if the U.S. ally doesn't cooperate on border issues, while some of his Democratic challengers for the White House said the deal to avert trade penalties was overblown.
In a series of tweets, Trump defended the agreement to head off the 5% tax on all Mexican goods that he had threatened to impose beginning today. But he warned Mexico that "if for some unknown reason" cooperation fails, "we can always go back to our previous, very profitable, position of Tariffs."
Still, he said, he didn't believe that would be necessary.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting Homeland Security Department secretary, applauded the president's moves.
"The president put a charge in his whole dialogue with Mexico with the tariff threats, brought them to the table," McAleenan said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "The foreign minister of Mexico arrived within hours. He arrived the next day with real proposals on the table."
The president's Sunday tweets came amid questions about just how much of the deal announced Friday was really new. The agreement, for instance, included a commitment from Mexico to deploy its new national guard to its southern border with Guatemala. Mexico, however, had already intended to do that before Trump's latest threat and had made that clear to U.S. officials. Mexican officials have described their commitment as an accelerated deployment.
The U.S. also hailed Mexico's agreement to embrace the expansion of a program implemented earlier this year under which some asylum seekers are returned to Mexico as they wait out their cases. But U.S. officials had already been working to expand the program, which has led to the return of about 10,000 people to Mexico, without Mexico's public embrace.
"The president has completely overblown what he reports to have achieved. These are agreements that Mexico had already made, in some cases months ago," said Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, speaking on ABC's This Week. "They might have accelerated the timetable, but by and large the president achieved nothing except to jeopardize the most important trading relationship that the United States of America has."
Another 2020 candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chastised Trump for using tariffs as a threat and operating a "trade policy based on tweets."
"I think what the world is tired of, and what I am tired of, is a president who consistently goes to war, verbal war with our allies, whether it is Mexico, whether it is Canada," he said.
But McAleenan insisted "all of it is new," including the agreement to dispatch about 6,000 Mexican national guard troops.
"This is the first time we've heard anything like this kind of number of law enforcement being deployed in Mexico to address migrations, not just at the southern border but also on the transportation routes to the northern border and in coordinated patrols in key areas along our southwest border," he said, adding that "people can disagree with the tactics" but that "Mexico came to the table with real proposals" that will be effective, if implemented.
Trump echoed the same in his tweets, insisting the deal was being misrepresented.
"We have been trying to get some of these Border Actions for a long time, as have other administrations, but were not able to get them, or get them in full, until our signed agreement with Mexico," he wrote. "Mexico was not being cooperative on the Border in things we had, or didn't have, and now I have full confidence, especially after speaking to their President yesterday, that they will be very cooperative and want to get the job properly done."
He also teased the idea that more was agreed to than was announced Friday, saying that "some things" and "one in particular" had been left out of the release but would be "announced at the appropriate time."
The president's tweet seemed to hint at a possible component of the deal that would transform asylum rules across the region and make applicants seek refuge in the first country they reach. Such an accord would allow the United States to deport to Mexico most asylum seekers from Guatemala, and those from Honduras and El Salvador would be flown to Guatemala.
Homeland Security Department officials said they think such an arrangement would lead to a dramatic drop in migrants arriving each month at the U.S. border. Those migrants are generally released from custody if they have children with them.
Migrant-rights advocates argued Sunday that while it was important that the United States and Mexico pledged to invest resources in Central America, the deal doesn't address the root cause of the problem, which is poverty and violence in the region that the migrants are fleeing.
"In general, I don't think that this agreement stems the flow," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said in an interview. "The situation in Central America is pretty dire. There are no examples in modern history of us being able to enforce our way out of a migration crisis like this."
But those who support a harder line on immigration said the agreement was a positive sign.
"I think Mexico sees that our two countries have a shared interest in clamping down on this," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors restricted immigration. "We'll see in a couple of months whether it makes a difference, but I think it can. I'm cautiously optimistic."
Homeland Security Department officials said the deal, if fully implemented, represents a breakthrough in their pressure campaign to get Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to take a more robust enforcement approach.
In particular, the pledge to deploy 6,000 national guard forces in southern Mexico could make it more difficult for smugglers to continue transporting groups of Central American migrants on buses with little interference from authorities.
Mexico has also given assurances it will expand immigration detention centers and bolster deportation efforts.
The newly formed national guard was created by Lopez Obrador primarily in response to domestic pressure to reduce crime and Mexico's soaring homicide rate, so committing those forces to immigration enforcement -- which Lopez Obrador described last year during his campaign as doing "dirty work" for the United States -- amounts to a significant concession, and it has generated criticism.
U.S. officials also view the expansion of the asylum program, known informally as "Remain in Mexico," as a difference-maker, allowing them to potentially require thousands more asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims for protection are fully adjudicated, a process that can take years. Mexico to date has been resisting U.S. efforts to expand the program across the entire border.
The program has so far survived court challenges, but a panel of federal judges in California has raised doubts about its legality, and Homeland Security Department officials have been bracing for an injunction that could halt the program.
Over the weekend, the deal prompted congressional Republicans to call for action on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Trump's new North American trade deal, which has yet to be approved by Congress.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a Senate Finance Committee member and former U.S. trade representative, said in a statement Friday that he hoped the migration accord would "pave the way for the House and Senate to move quickly to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement."
The White House took a step this month to begin the process of congressional approval, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned as recently as Wednesday that approval was in doubt in the House unless several concerns about the negotiated agreement are addressed.
"We hope to have a path to yes to get it done," she told reporters. "But you have to have enforcement as part of the agreement, not as part of a sidebar letter or bills that we might pass in each country -- part of the agreement."
A senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations, said Sunday that the migration deal was "totally irrelevant" to leaders' concerns about the trade deal.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, expressed relief in talk-show appearances Sunday.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who had spoken out against Trump's tariff threats, called the migration deal "a big win for both sides" and said it sent a message to China, whose leaders are wrangling with Trump over trade.
"Even though I'm not a big supporter of tariffs, he is, and his willingness to use that probably helped produce a result," Blunt said on CBS' Face the Nation. "I hope we don't have to go back to that as an issue again with Mexico."
Mexico's ambassador in Washington said her country is committed to working with the U.S. and that discussions will continue.
"We want to continue to work with the U.S. very closely on the different challenges that we have together. And one urgent one at this moment is immigration," said Martha Barcena. She said on Face the Nation that the countries' "joint declaration of principles ... gives us the base for the road map that we have to follow in the incoming months on immigration and cooperation on asylum issues and development in Central America."
She said the U.S. wants to see the number of migrants crossing the border return to levels seen in 2018.
Information for this article was contributed by Jill Colvin of The Associated Press and by Felicia Sonmez, Mike DeBonis, Nick Miroff and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.
People use the legal border crossing into the United States (top) while migrants (bottom) wait to apply for asylum Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico.
Raft operators use poles to transport migrants from Guatemala to Mexico on Sunday across the Suchiate River near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.
A Section on 06/10/2019
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