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Mexico relented on border issues long before Trump announced tariffs deal

A large American flag intended to protest US policy along the southern border, as seen Friday from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.Christian Torres/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The deal to avert tariffs that President Trump announced with great fanfare Friday night consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.

Friday’s joint declaration says Mexico agreed to the “deployment of its National Guard throughout Mexico, giving priority to its southern border.” But the Mexican government had already pledged to do that in March during secret talks in Miami between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, and Olga Sanchez, the Mexican secretary of the interior, the officials said.

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The centerpiece of Trump’s deal was an expansion of a program to allow asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal cases proceed. But that arrangement was first reached in December in a pair of painstakingly negotiated diplomatic notes that the two countries exchanged. Nielsen announced the Migrant Protection Protocols during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee five days before Christmas.

And over the past week, negotiators failed to persuade Mexico to accept a “safe third country” treaty that would have given the United States the legal ability to reject asylum-seekers if they had not sought refuge in Mexico first.

Trump hailed the agreement anyway Saturday, writing on Twitter: “Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!” He thanked the president of Mexico for “working so long and hard” on a plan to reduce the surge of migration into the United States.

It was unclear whether Trump believed that the agreement truly represented new and broader concessions, or whether the president understood the limits of the deal but accepted it as a face-saving way to escape from the political and economic consequences of imposing tariffs on Mexico.

Having threatened Mexico with an escalating series of tariffs — starting at 5 percent and growing to 25 percent — the president faced enormous criticism from global leaders, business executives, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and members of his own staff that he risked disrupting a critical marketplace.

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After nine days of uncertainty, Trump backed down and accepted Mexico’s promises.

Officials involved with talks said they began in earnest last Sunday, when Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, met over dinner with Mexico’s foreign minister. One senior government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the closed-door negotiations that took place over several days, insisted that the Mexicans agreed to move faster and more aggressively to deter migrants than they ever have before.

Their promise to deploy 5,400 national guard troops was larger than their previous pledge. And the Mexican agreement to accelerate the Migrant Protection Protocols could help reduce what Trump calls “catch and release” of migrants in the United States by giving the country a greater ability to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico.

But there remains deep skepticism among some US officials — and even Trump himself — about whether the Mexicans have agreed to do enough, whether they will follow through on their promises, and whether, even if they do, that will reduce the flow of migrants at the southwestern border.

In addition, the Migrant Protection Protocols already face legal challenges by immigrant rights groups who say they violate the migrants’ right to lawyers. A federal judge blocked the Trump administration from implementing the plan, but an appeals court later said it could move forward while the legal challenge proceeds.

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During a phone call Friday evening when he was briefed on the agreement, Trump quizzed his lawyers, diplomats, and immigration officials about whether they thought the deal would work. His aides said yes, but admitted that they were also realistic that the surge of immigration might continue.

“We’ll see if it works,” the president told them, approving the deal before sending out his tweet announcing it.

Trump’s decision to use trade as a bludgeon against Mexico was driven in part by his obsession with stopping what he falsely calls an invasion of the country and in part by a desire to satisfy his core supporters, many of whom have grown angry at his inability to build his promised border wall.

Trump’s top immigration officials had repeatedly warned the president that results from their work to curb the flow of migrants might not be evident until July, and urged patience.

That effort became more difficult in May, when numbers spiked to the highest levels of his presidency. During the week of May 24, 5,800 migrants — highest ever for one day — crossed on a single day.