NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump says he has a deal, but we can't know the details just yet. Yesterday, he greeted reporters outside of the White House waving a signed document.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is one page of a very long and very good agreement for both Mexico and the United States. Without the tariffs, we would have had nothing. We had nothing two weeks ago.
KING: You will remember that President Trump had been threatening to impose tariffs on Mexico in order to force Mexico to stop or limit migrant crossings into the U.S. Mexico's foreign minister said this week that his country has negotiated a 45-day window to prove that they can take care of this. He said Mexico will send its troops to the border with Guatemala. It will also welcome asylum-seekers who've been turned away by U.S. authorities. But the Trump administration still wants a Safe Third Country Agreement, and that would require migrants to seek asylum in Mexico rather than in the U.S. Here's acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan talking yesterday.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: I've long advocated for partnership between destination and transit countries on migration.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Would that stop this problem?
MCALEENAN: I think a Safe Third Country Agreement with Mexico or other governments where we see transit would be a very effective way.
KING: All right. John Feeley knows this region very well. He served as U.S. ambassador to Panama. He also served as the No. 2 American in Mexico. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.
JOHN FEELEY: It's a real pleasure, Noel.
KING: All right. We should say from the outset, you are not a fan of President Trump. You resigned as ambassador because you disagreed with his policies.
FEELEY: That's correct. I disagreed, in particular, with his immigration policies.
KING: In particular, with this one. OK. Mexico, though, has agreed, as the president points out, to take more responsibility for the flow of migrants across the border. Is there an argument that the president's strategy is working?
FEELEY: You know, this is where folks like me, who criticized the manner in which the president and this administration go about attempting to address the immigration problem, have to really sit back and look critically at our own position. I think the short answer, and the answer for the short term is, he may perhaps be onto something. Wielding a big stick - tariffs, which is a completely inappropriate tool - he may be onto something for the short term. Although, that's not clear.
However, I remain convinced that for the long term and the development of a real partnership between the United States, Mexico and the countries of Central America, this is a terrible way to go about things, putting people into a corner, backing them up to it and then holding the Damocles sword over their head.
KING: Let's talk about this Safe Third Country Agreement. Asylum-seekers typically wait in the U.S. while their cases are proceeding. Would this mean that Mexico takes in many more migrants?
FEELEY: Well, think about it this way. There are a couple of programs going on. What you've just described is something called the Mexican migration protocols. That's where Central Americans get to a U.S. port of entry walking through Mexico, present themselves for asylum and then are sent back to Mexico to be - and the term is metered in for their appearances. A Safe Third Country Agreement is something different. What the Safe Third Country Agreement is, is that Mexico would take them once the United States returns them and then process them for asylum inside of Mexico to remain in Mexico.
KING: Are migrants from Central American countries less interested in getting asylum in Mexico than they are in the U.S.?
FEELEY: That's a very good question. I think the answer is yes for a host of reasons. One, Mexico simply is not as safe as the United States. Homicides are up, year on year, 10%, despite Mexican efforts to address them under the new government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But also keep in mind that migrants go where they think they will be successful. What do you need to be successful if you have low education and low job skills? You need family and a support structure. That's in the United States for Central Americans, not in Mexico.
KING: Safety and success - obviously, very, very important to people. But should those people's preferences guide U.S. migration policy? Is there an argument that the U.S. does need to take some measures to stem the flow of migrants across the border, no matter what they want?
FEELEY: There absolutely is an argument. And again, this is where I have to say, somewhat self critically, I have to ask myself, is the president onto something by swinging this big stick? The fact is that we have long encouraged Mexico to be more aggressive in protecting its southern border with Guatemala. And I can't tell you how many times I and my colleagues sat down over negotiations, and the Mexicans in fact did drag their feet. So I've got to be honest. This commitment by Mexico to now send 6,000 of their national guardsmen - which, by the way, they don't have...
KING: They don't have a national guard...
FEELEY: They don't have a national guard.
KING: ...Of any substance. Yeah.
FEELEY: Only approved earlier this year. But in point of fact, this will be an arm patch-switching exercise. They have federal police. They have military. The question is are those people really trained to do immigration enforcement for desperate women and children? So you've got the practical aspect of how does Mexico do this mixed with Mexico's own very strong humanitarian tradition, and a United States which is sort of saying, look, this is your problem to fix. In a sense, when the president pulled out that piece of paper, he was showing what looked to me to be a contract to subcontract the Mexican - or the Central American migration crisis into Mexico.
KING: And as I understand, Mexico is refusing U.S. money to help with this problem? Do I have that right?
FEELEY: Well, you have it partially right. Historically, Mexico has always had to deal with its migration situation, with the migrants being primarily Mexican citizens. In defense of their citizens, the Mexican constitution allows for the free circulation of Mexicans in their national territory. So they never stopped any Mexicans from coming across the border. There was no south-to-north checkpoint where they said, wait a minute, you don't have papers, you can't go into the United States.
And they would, as a point of pride, not take American money to do anything other than investigate the networks that traffic them and fight crime. But just simple migrants going north, they wouldn't stop. Now it appears, possibly, they will.
KING: John Feeley is a longtime American diplomat who retired as U.S. ambassador to Panama last year. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.
FEELEY: A real pleasure, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.