Donald Trump had some strong words for the Mexican government on Easter morning. In a series of tweets, he chastised Mexico for not curbing illegal immigration.
That’s the same country Trump’s own homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen praised just last week for cooperating with the US on border issues. “We are neighbors, we are allies, we are friends,” she said in heavily-accented Spanish after announcing three new border-security agreements between the US and Mexico.
The belligerent tone Trump uses when talking publicly about Mexico belies the more civil interactions his administration has with Mexican officials. Despite the president’s frequent rants and threats, the two countries have carried on with their work on the routine issues that define their relationship, including immigration and trade. “We don’t want differences to define the relationship,” Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray recently told a San Diego audience. “We’ll continue to engage and try to make this as strong a relationship as possible.”
The Mexican government has actively stopped undocumented immigrants from making it to the US. It ramped up detentions and deportations of Central Americans to help the Barack Obama administration handle a surge of immigrants into the US from that region starting in 2014.
The number of people attempting to illegally cross into the US from Mexico has dropped under Trump, but Mexican authorities have continued their arrests—despite the negative flack they get from human rights’ groups for doing that work. Last year, Mexico deported more Hondurans than the US itself: nearly 27,000 vs. the US’s roughly 21,000, according to the Consular and Migrant Observatory of Honduras, a government entity.
Aside from blocking people, Mexico is vowing to do more to prevent the trafficking of goods. Under the new agreements, the US and Mexico will work together to inspect cargo flowing through the border, and intercept contraband.
On Sunday, Trump threatened Mexico, saying if it didn’t deal with illegal immigration, he’d kill the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, the three-way commercial deal between the US, Mexico, and Canada.
The three countries are currently renegotiating the 24-year-old pact at the bequest of the US president, who has called it “the worst deal ever made.”
Despite their bombastic origin, those talks have been advancing—albeit slowly—without any major derailment. US trade representative Robert Lighthizer has at times sounded almost as adversarial as his boss, but he’s been a lot cheerier about NAFTA’s prospects lately, at least publicly. “I’m optimistic that we can get something done in principle in the next little bit,” he told CNBC on March 28.
The Fox News trigger?
Trump is obviously less upbeat about NAFTA—and Mexico more generally—based on his Sunday tweets. They appear to have been in response to a Sunday Fox & Friends report on a “caravan” of hundreds of US-bound migrants making their way through Mexico.
During the Fox segment, the chief of the National Border Patrol Council union said the immigrants would wreak “chaos and havoc” if they made it to their destination. “How many times do we have to hear stories of US citizens being killed by people that are here illegally before we actually do something?” he said.
It’s not hard to see how that kind of rhetoric would resonate with the president, who often portrays immigrants similarly. Whether voluntarily or unconsciously, Trump has made a habit of fanning fear against immigrants and Mexico. It’s a strategy that’s played well with his supporters in the past.
That makes the country a very effective piñata, according to Mexican political commentator Carlos Bravo Regidor. “For Trump, Mexico is not a country, a neighbor, a partner, an ally. It’s a symbol that allows him to ‘connect’ with his social base: anti-immigration, anti-integration, and frequently affected by the opioid addiction epidemic,” he tweeted (Spanish).
So far, US and Mexican officials have quietly absorbed Trump’s verbal attacks in order to maintain the two countries’ longstanding institutional ties. Mexico’s next president might not be as stoic. The frontrunner in this year’s presidential race, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said at a campaign event Sunday that Mexico will not “be the piñata of any foreign government.”