WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump announced Friday night that a deal was in place that would avert threatened tariffs on Mexican imports in exchange for Mexico taking "strong measures" to curb the influx of Central American migrants at the U.S. southern border.
The agreement, which came just two days before Trump had vowed to enact 5 percent, across-the-board tariffs on one of the United States' top trading partners, called for the Mexican government to widely dispatch its National Guard forces to help with immigration enforcement, with priority on its southern border with Guatemala, according to a joint statement.
In addition, the two countries would expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), created this year, that allows the United States to return Central American migrants to Mexico while they await the adjudication of their asylum hearings in U.S. immigration court, a process that can take months.
The expansion of the program could result in tens of thousands of migrants waiting in limbo in potentially unsafe conditions in Mexico. MPP already has faced legal challenges, and while a federal appeals court panel in San Francisco has allowed it to temporarily continue while it reviews the policy, some judges have indicated that the MPP program might not be constitutional.
"I am pleased to inform you that The United States of America has reached a signed agreement with Mexico," Trump wrote on Twitter. "The Tariffs scheduled to be implemented by the U.S. on Monday, against Mexico, are hereby indefinitely suspended. Mexico, in turn, has agreed to take strong measures to stem the tide of Migration through Mexico, and to our Southern Border."
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tweeted about the deal shortly after Trump, adding that he would still hold a planned rally in Tijuana on Saturday meant to "defend the dignity of Mexico."
"Thanks to the support of all Mexicans, the imposition of tariffs on Mexican products exported to the United States was avoided," he wrote.
At the State Department, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told reporters that the deal did not include a provision pushed by the Trump administration, known as a "Safe Third Country" agreement, that would have required asylum seekers to apply for refugee status in Mexico before reaching the United States, since it also is considered safe.
"I think it is a fair balance because they had more drastic measures and proposals at the start and we reached a mid-point," Ebrard said.
The deal came hours after Trump had arrived back at the White House after a week-long trip to Europe, during which U.S. and Mexican negotiators had worked feverishly to produce the outlines of an agreement that would satisfy the president.
Trump has grown increasingly frustrated by a record surge of migrant families at the border that has propelled unauthorized immigration to levels not seen in more than a dozen years. U.S. authorities apprehended 133,000 people at the southern border last month, more than twice as many as had been taken into custody in December. The figure is on pace to top 1 million arrests for fiscal 2019, with four months remaining.
The president's threat to impose a 5 percent tariff on Monday and raise it over several months to 25 percent if Mexico did not take significant steps to curb the migration flow illustrated the anxiety in the White House as Trump begins to ramp up his reelection messaging ahead of the 2020 campaign. His risky strategy alarmed business executives, some Republican leaders and even his own economic advisers, who worried that a trade war with Mexico could harm the economy of both countries.
GOP leaders praised Trump for the outcome Friday evening.
"By using all the tools available to him under U.S. law, President Trump has advanced the protection of our national security interests," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement. "While I generally do not support imposing tariffs, except in cases of legitimate violations of U.S. trade law, Mexico's lack of commitment when it comes to addressing the unsustainable and dangerous migratory crisis at our Southern Border has left this administration no other choice. By exerting maximum pressure and demanding decisive action from the López Obrador administration, President Trump has secured an important victory on behalf of the American people."
But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has objected to Trump's efforts to build a border wall and his threats to seal the border to trade and tourism, reacted sarcastically to Trump's announcement.
"This is an historic night! @realDonaldTrump has announced that he has cut a deal to 'greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico, and into the United States,' " Schumer wrote on Twitter. "Now that that problem is solved, I'm sure we won't be hearing any more about it in the future."
Mexico had responded to Trump's threats by announcing new actions to apprehend more Central American migrants traveling across its borders. And U.S. negotiators said this week that they had reached the outlines of a deal that would dramatically increase Mexico's immigration enforcement efforts and give the United States far more latitude to deport asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"We're doing well," Trump told reporters Friday in response to shouted questions on the South Lawn after he arrived back at the White House on Marine One.
White House aides - who have been divided over a strategy that could harm both the Mexican and U.S. economies - had been preparing for Trump to follow through on his threats even as they work to produce an agreement that will satisfy him.
"There's a long way to go still - that's the bottom line," Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Pence, told reporters at the White House earlier Friday. He said the administration planned to issue a "legal notification" Friday in advance of the potential tariffs.
"But I think that there is the ability, if negotiations continue to go well, that the president can turn that off at some point over the weekend," Short added. He said that the negotiations taking place in Washington had been "wholly insufficient" Wednesday but that the White House was "more encouraged" as of Thursday.
The talks continued throughout the day Friday at the State Department, and White House aides were set to present Trump with more details upon his return, officials said.
Trump's threats to ramp up levies on Mexican goods raised fears among some presidential advisers, as well as business leaders, that the brinkmanship could backfire by contributing to a slowdown of U.S. economic growth. The economy added 75,000 jobs in May, a significant drop from 224,000 in April, with economists linking the decline to Trump's escalating tariffs on China and threats against Mexico.
The Trump administration already has agreed to a new trade pact with Mexico and Canada that is awaiting congressional ratification, but the chances of that accord becoming law could be damaged amid a trade war over immigration.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Friday from 140 business and agricultural organizations warning that the tariffs "would harm U.S. consumers, workers, farmers and businesses of all sizes across all sectors."
But Trump signaled confidence in the health of the U.S. economy.
"Dow Jones has best week of the year!" he tweeted Friday evening on news that the market surged by more than 260 points despite the sluggish jobs report.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has sought to tamp down tensions with the Trump White House, scheduled a "unity" rally Saturday in the border city of Tijuana to "defend the dignity" of his nation while emphasizing its "friendship" with the United States.
Yet Mexico has vowed to enact retaliatory tariffs against U.S. goods if necessary.
Faced with Trump's threat to impose steadily rising tariffs on goods imported from Mexico beginning Monday, Mexican officials have pledged to deploy as many as 6,000 national guard troops near the border with Guatemala, a show of force that they say will immediately reduce the number of Central Americans heading north toward the United States.
The proposed deal - amounting to a sweeping overhaul of asylum rules across the region - would require Central American migrants to seek refuge in the first country they enter after leaving their homeland, Mexican and U.S. officials said. For Guatemalans, that would be Mexico. For migrants from Honduras and El Salvador, that would be Guatemala, whose government held talks last week with acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Any migrants who made it to the U.S. border generally would be deported to the appropriate third country. And any migrants who expressed a fear of death or torture in their home country would be subjected to a tougher screening standard by U.S. asylum officers, one more likely to result in rejection.
On Friday, Mexican finance officials said they had frozen the bank accounts of 26 people because of their alleged involvement in human trafficking, another sign of escalating enforcement efforts.
Yet Trump and his top advisers have offered muddy signals about what, exactly, Mexico must do to avoid punitive actions.
U.S. authorities apprehended nearly 133,000 migrants at the southern border in May, the highest number in a dozen years, and the figure is on pace to top 1 million arrests for fiscal 2019, with four months remaining.
In his initial threats, Trump said Mexican authorities must block all unauthorized immigrants from entering the United States, but acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the administration was looking for immigration to decrease by a "significant and substantial number."
Privately, Mexican negotiators have told the Trump administration that the steps they are proposing could reduce unauthorized crossings to the levels of last fall, when an average of about 60,000 migrants were apprehended each month. White House officials, however, have pushed for guarantees that the number would fall to about 20,000 a month, a historical low that was achieved in the first few months of Trump's tenure.
Experts cautioned that even if the United States and Mexico strike a deal to bolster enforcement, progress could be temporary unless there is a sustained commitment to addressing the root problems prompting Central American families to flee their homelands, including crime, climate change and hunger.
Former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, who confronted a border surge in 2014, said the United States saw major reductions in migration after the Mexican government agreed to toughen enforcement along the border with Guatemala. By the following year, illegal crossings into the United States fell to a 50-year low.
But the changes were short-lived, and border arrests shot up again in 2016.
"In my experience you can do things more aggressively at the border that will have a sharp but short impact on numbers," said Johnson, who served in the Obama administration. "But as long as underlying conditions in Central America persist, things will always revert back to the longer trend lines, and that's why continuing aid to Central America is so important to solve larger problems."
This article was written by David Nakamura, Nick Miroff and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.