Daniel Ra / Staff Photographer

Prof. Gustavo Flores-Marcías, government, filled in for Roberta S. Jacobson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the debate with Sandra Fuentes-Berain when Jacobson's plane was delayed due to mechanical issues.

October 22, 2019

Status Quo or Radical Change? Ambassadors Debate Implications of Trump’s Immigration Policy

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Amidst a presidency that has seen clashes at the border and high-profile confrontations with Mexico, a pair of former diplomats debated whether Trump’s immigration record represents a radical change — or merely an extension of the status quo.

In a debate on Monday moderated by Prof. Gustavo Flores-Macías, Sandra Fuentes-Berain, Mexico’s Ambassador Emeritus who served as the Consul General of Mexico in New York, and Roberta S. Jacobson, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, sparred over the  implications of the Trump’s immigration policy.

Flores-Macías, who filled in for Jacobson during the first half of the panel when the ambassador’s flight was delayed, argued that, while Trump’s immigration policy has, at times, drawn intense outrage — it largely represents a continuation of the precedent set by the previous, and often less controversial, President.

While “President Trump is accused of adopting this openly anti-Mexican policy … if you look at the numbers … we have, in fact, fewer deportations taking place in this administration than under the Obama administration,” he said.

According to Axios, despite Trump’s repeated pledge to deport large swaths of America’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, that hardline position has failed to materialize during his time in office: While the Obama administration deported an average of 350,000 individuals, ICE deporations under Trump have yet to eclipse 290,000.

But Fuentes-Berain said that explanation was overly-simplistic. She said that much of Obama’s policy “was part of the strategy” — that it may have been driven by a longer-term plan to bring about the sort of comprehensive immigration reform that has eluded Congress for decades.

“It was [Obama’s] way of showing Republicans that he was tough on immigration,”  according to Fuentes-Berain, so that “he could try and pass [the laws] that were very badly needed in immigration reform.”

Although Flores-Macías defended Trump’s deportation policy as being in line with predecessors, he did acknowledge that U.S.-Mexican relations have soured under Trump’s watch, becoming “a lot less civil” and “a lot more crass.”

However, he still maintained that the day-to-day impact of Trump’s policies, especially the revised NAFTA deal, have only had a marginal practical impact — a conclusion Fuentes-Berain said ignores Trump’s reliance on roughshod diplomatic tactics to achieve his domestic political goals.

For instance, Fuentes-Berain described Mexico as “weakened and at the mercy of Trump” in explaining the country’s recent role in helping the Trump administration prevent migrants from reaching the United States.

Earlier this summer, in response to Trump threatening to dramatically hike tariffs to up to 25 percent, the Mexican government agreed take greater efforts to stem the flow of migrants from Central America and allow asylum-seekers to remain south of the American border while their cases are processed.

According to Fuentes-Berain, that move amounted to Trump taking Mexico “hostage” and giving it “no choice but to pay the ransom.”

But in a discussion marked by disagreement over the true impact of Trump’s polarizing policies, the panelists found little trouble agreeing on the importance of the U.S.-Mexican relationship — and that cooperation must take the place of divisive rhetoric.

“The U.S.-Mexico relationship is the most important in the world — it is a relationship that affects more Americans on a daily basis than any other,” said Jacobson, who arrived later on in the debate.

Going forward, the only way to mend the two countries’ fraying ties is for Trump to tamp down campaign bombast and focus on areas of agreement, according to Jacobson, who served as Trump’s Mexico ambassador for a little over a year before resigning over disagreements.

“The single thing that we could do is mutually respect each other and avoid the vilification of Mexicans. The chanting in rallies about the wall — it is really very insulting to us,” said Jacobson. “You have to stop the rhetoric that the administration has used towards Mexico when it’s convenient and start focusing on cooperating.”

The event, part of the Lund Critical Debate series, was sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.