MIAMI — “I’m using Mexico to protect our border.” Millions of Americans didn’t even notice this recent remark made by President Trump. But Mexicans certainly did. They thought Mr. Trump’s words were a blatant attack on their nation’s sovereignty.
Still, while the president’s statement was arrogant and offensive, it’s actually true. Mr. Trump made his comment about the border on Sept. 26, just two days after Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, launched a formal impeachment inquiry that could lead to the president’s removal from office. Yet sandwiched between the constant “witch hunt” accusations, Mr. Trump managed to say something that hit a raw nerve.
“I want to thank Mexico,” Mr. Trump continued. “Twenty-seven thousand soldiers they have. But think of how bad that is — think of it — where we use Mexico because the Democrats won’t fix our broken immigration system.”
Almost 400,000 people have watched a video I posted on Twitter of Mr. Trump saying this. Some felt humiliated by the president’s statement. After all, a friend wouldn’t say to another friend that he’s using him, much less say it in public.
But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico (or AMLO, as he’s known) didn’t see it that way. “There’s nothing we should be ashamed of,” he said at a news conference. “We protect Mexico’s sovereignty. At the same time, we try to avoid confrontation.”
A salient feature of Mexico’s current foreign policy is precisely AMLO’s reluctance to confront anyone outside of the country. In short, American officials say what they want, and Mexico — almost always — goes along with it. The relationship between the two nations is by no means an egalitarian one. In fact, it poses a threat to Mexico: Mr. Trump has previously warned that he would impose tariffs if Mexico didn’t back his immigration agenda.
Mexico may not have paid for the president’s wall, but the country has, in effect, become Mr. Trump’s immigration police force. Mexico itself has become the wall.
Recently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico triumphantly announced a 56 percent decline in the number of Central American immigrants crossing Mexican territory between May and August. Why would Mexico force an entire family from Honduras or El Salvador to stay in Matamoros or Ciudad Juárez, if the United States is where they really want to go? The answer, sadly, is clear: Because that is exactly what the American government wants. Mexico is accepting tens of thousands of immigrants that Mr. Trump is refusing to take in. Mexico is now the United States’ safety valve.
Mexico’s president “basically, has accepted all terms and conditions” set by the United States, Armando Santacruz, president of Mexico United Against Crime, told me in an interview. “Yes, we are the wall. And [Mexico’s] National Guard is now spending a lot if its resources keeping immigrants away.”
I don’t know where Mr. Trump came up with the 27,000 soldiers figure. Perhaps he was referring to the number of National Guard (or Guardia Nacional) troops currently protecting the Mexican border with Guatemala as part of an effort to prevent Central Americans from entering the country en route to the United States. The National Guard was never meant to serve as an immigration agency for the United States. It was created to combat crime in Mexico — something it has failed to do thus far.
But Mexico is not only using the National Guard to turn away Central Americans. It has also agreed to accept immigrants who are seeking asylum in the United States while their applications are being processed. The country is basically America’s waiting room.
The Trump administration has placed great pressure on the Mexican economy to get what officials want, precisely at a time when financial indicators suggest a recession could be looming.
Even so, we are talking about sovereignty, about dignity and basic respect for human rights, under circumstances where the safety of people fleeing gangs, violence and extreme poverty is at stake. Mexico should never forget that for decades it was an “immigrant exporter.” Now it must treat Central Americans with the same care and respect it has always demanded for Mexicans living in the United States.
It’s true: President Trump is using Mexico. And, against all logic, Mexico is letting him get away with it. This has to change.
What can Mexico do? It must refuse to be Mr. Trump’s wall, to be the United States’ waiting room and safety valve. Mexico must re-embrace its honorable tradition of protecting the persecuted and most vulnerable, whether they’re fleeing civil war in Spain or crime and hunger in Central America.
To President López Obrador, I say this: It is a mistake to place bets on Mr. Trump. This is something all his former friends have learned the hard way. Do you really want to be associated with the policies of a president who, according to a recent report in The New York Times, suggested shooting migrants at the border in the legs? Why haven’t Mexicans taken to the streets in outraged protest?
Mr. Trump is on the wrong side of history. When he finally leaves office, his accomplices and partners, inside and outside the United States, will be judged harshly for their misdeeds.
There is still time to do the right thing.