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Faced with tariffs, Mexican president asks for ‘dialogue,’ sends envoy to Washington

By Patrick J. McDonnell • May 31, 2019 at 4:30 PM

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday that he hoped “dialogue” could resolve a new crisis in U.S.-Mexico relations following President Donald Trump’s decision to impose across-the-board tariffs on Mexican imports because of what Trump called Mexico’s failure to stop U.S.-bound migrants.

The Mexican president dispatched Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign minister, to Washington in a bid to jump-start talks to avoid the imposition of tariffs, slated to begin taking effect on June 10.

“I think there will be a rectification … there has to be, because these measures don’t help either Mexicans or United States” citizens, Lopez Obrador said at his morning news conference.

But Lopez Obrador, who has repeatedly declined to get into a rhetorical battle with Trump, again emphasized that he would not fall into “any provocation” that could aggravate bilateral relations.

“We are going to act with prudence and with respect for the authorities of the United States, for President Trump,” declared Lopez Obrador, a leftist who was elected in a landslide last July on a platform vowing change and an end to endemic corruption. “We believe that all conflicts in bilateral relations should be confronted (and) resolved with dialogue.”

The new tariffs could have severe economic repercussions in Mexico, which is heavily dependent on trade with its northern neighbor. The trade dispute was shaping up as the strongest crisis to date to face Mexico’s president, who took office on Dec. 1.

It was not immediately clear whether Mexico would move to impose retaliatory tariffs on food items and other imports from the United States. For the moment, Mexican authorities appeared to be concentrating on efforts to convince Trump to change his mind.

The Mexico peso continued to slide in value against the U.S. dollar early Friday.

Mexico’s economy is already projected to have slow growth of some 2% or less this year, and the Lopez Obrador administration clearly wants to avoid a debilitating trade war with Washington that could cripple his presidency.

For the past year, Mexican negotiators worked hard to preserve a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the quarter-century-old trade pact linking the United States, Mexico and Canada — that Trump had repeatedly threatened to void. Legislators of the three nations are currently considering a revised version of the trade accord. Mexican authorities celebrated the new deal as a major victory.

To maintain the free-trade regimen in the successor to NAFTA, Mexico sought allies in U.S. industry that are heavily dependent on cross-border commerce, including the agriculture and automotive sectors. Mexican officials seem likely to seek out such allies anew to help persuade Trump to reverse his tariff plan. Increased tariffs, Mexican authorities note, will probably result in higher prices for many consumer goods in the United States.

But the existing three-country trade accord does not address the thorny issue of immigration, which has been a key sticking point with the Trump administration.

Mexico was for decades the chief source of migrants illegally crossing the border into the United States. But that has changed in recent years as heightened U.S. border enforcement and other factors have prompted fewer Mexicans to attempt to cross illegally.

But the past year has seen a surge in asylum-seeking migrants not from Mexico, but from impoverished and crime-ridden Central American nations — including large numbers of women and children — who transit Mexico en route to U.S. territory, then surrender to the Border Patrol. The increase has overwhelmed U.S. detention space and increased the backlog in immigration courts..

Some 300,000 U.S.-bound migrants, mostly Central Americans, entered Mexican territory between January and March, Mexican authorities say. While high-profile “caravans” made international headlines, most reached Mexico with the aid of professional smugglers, often working in cahoots with crooked cops and immigration agents.

Mexico has long cooperated with the United States in efforts to thwart the illicit migration. But experts say it seems unlikely that Mexico can completely stanch the flow via its porous southern border with Guatemala.

Since 2015, according to Mexican government figures, Mexico has deported more than 500,000 Central Americans, largely from the so-called Northern Triangle nations — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — that are the biggest sources of U.S.-bound migrants today. In recent months, Mexico has also agreed to receive more than 6,000 U.S. asylum applicants, mostly Central Americans, while they await adjudication of their cases in the United States.

However, officials and experts say Mexico lacks the will and manpower to shut down illicit migration along the 600-mile border with Guatemala, which features rivers, jungles and mountainous terrain. Much of the border is wide open and regularly traversed by smuggling groups moving large numbers of northbound migrants, as well as contraband merchandise.

Lopez Obrador has repeatedly emphasized the “human rights” of migrants, vowing to give them work permits and residency status. In January and February, his government issued more than 15,000 “humanitarian” visas to migrants, many of whom planned to continue on to the United States, in a move that probably prompted a new surge of migrants toward Mexico. The action angered Washington.

In the past six weeks or so, Mexico has begun to crack down on migrants entering from Guatemala, installing immigration checkpoints on roads leading from the border in southern Mexico and breaking up one major caravan of Central Americans. Arrests and detentions of immigrants who crossed illegally increased substantially in April compared with the same period in 2018. But the large-scale entry of Central Americans continues, as is evident in the increasing numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In his announcement on Thursday, Trump outlined an escalating series of tariffs “on all goods imported from Mexico.” The tariffs will begin at 5% on June 10 and will escalate to 25% on Oct. 1 until “the illegal immigration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment.”

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(Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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