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World

Former Mexican Ambassador To The U.S. Weighs In On Border Situation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After protests and projectiles, tear gas and arrests, it is quieter but still tense today along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It is not clear what will happen to the thousands of Central Americans waiting to cross the border into the U.S., a process that could stretch to months if not years.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump has suggested the ball is in Mexico's court. Mexico, he says, can let the migrants stay on its side of the border or deport them. Mexico, meanwhile, is in the midst of a presidential transition.

The president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, takes office this weekend. The White House plans to meet with officials from the new administration on Monday. Until then, the two countries are in a holding pattern.

KELLY: Let's bring in a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan. Good to speak with you.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: It's good to be on the show with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to get your reaction to a couple of things that the U.S. has done or is proposing to do, starting with President Trump's threat to close the border, the entire U.S.-Mexico border, permanently. How do you read that threat?

SARUKHAN: Well, talk about self-inflicted wounds. When you stop and think for a moment, there are - that there are 1 million legal, daily crossings in both directions on the border, that there are 75,000 trucks that reach the border in both directions every day and that we trade $1.4 billion a day of goods in both directions...

KELLY: You're warning this would hurt the U.S. as much as it would Mexico.

SARUKHAN: Just - Mary Louise, just on the border between San Diego and San Ysidro where the migrant caravan has arrived, by shutting down that border, businesses on the San Diego side of the border are giving up anywhere from 10 to 15 million dollars a day of purchases of Mexicans who cross into San Diego to eat and buy and get services.

KELLY: But as someone who's been in the middle of back and forth about the border for many years, do you read this as a serious threat? I mean, do you believe the government in Mexico City should take this seriously?

SARUKHAN: I think so. I - I think that if one year and a half of President Trump's anti-Mexico tirades have shown anything is that he is willing to go ahead and push the envelope as far as he can go in this sort of my-way-or-the-highway approach to everything from trade to now immigration policy.

By shutting down the border, by trying to lead with deterrence-driven-only policies, this is not going to solve the long-term, holistic challenges that Central America, Mexico and the United States face as we look at labor mobility and migration flows and refugees in North America over the coming years.

KELLY: Let me ask you about another move reportedly on the table, which is that asylum-seekers stay on the Mexican side of the border while they wait for their cases to be heard. That would be a change. From your perspective, is this something that Mexico should agree to?

SARUKHAN: Well, it could be a workable solution. Having said that, the only way this is doable is if there is a clear quid pro quo because what can't happen again, Mary Louise, is what the Mexican government did in 2014, which is to basically become a filter for Central American migration that started to spike in the summer of 2014 in exchange for nothing. And the incoming Mexican government shouldn't be appeasing Donald Trump with this one, especially if there's no quid pro quo to be had.

KELLY: So what should the quid pro quo look like?

SARUKHAN: You know, the incoming Mexican administration has articulated something akin to a Marshall Plan. I think that's going to be hard because if you see what the Trump administration has been doing over the past year and a half, which is significantly reducing the budget for international cooperation and aid to Central American nations, that may be a hard lift.

But certainly, I think there has to be some discussion as to how we jointly address the structural causes that are leading so many thousands of Central Americans to traverse Mexico to try and make it across the border into the United States.

KELLY: To the current situation, does Mexico have the resources to house, to feed, to look after thousands of people at the border without turning that border into something resembling a refugee camp?

SARUKHAN: Right now, it doesn't seem to be the case, Mary Louise. I think one of the tensions that you've seen, especially in a place like Tijuana where the brunt of the caravan has arrived and is there, is that there is a very important strain on facilities, on resources. The stadium that is being used, some of the churches and some of the gym - gymnasiums that are being used to house and host and feed the Central American migrants are - are under severe strain.

And Mexico, unfortunately, for many years now, has not invested the adequate resources to ensure that we have the manpower and bandwidth to be able to tackle this very significant uptick in migration patterns from Central America through Mexico.

KELLY: So if you were back in your old job...

SARUKHAN: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...And you were the ambassador here in Washington, what would - what would be the advice you would whisper into the ear of the incoming president, Lopez Obrador?

SARUKHAN: I think - I think that, first of all, we have to push back against my-way-or-the-highway policies being - maybe being foisted upon the incoming government by - by the Trump administration. I think that we have to continue to hammer away, that the only way we're going to find a minimally successful solution is by working together, hand in hand, to ensure that we are creating the conditions for these migrants to be hosted in Mexico while they await asylum hearings in the United States and that Mexico is also developing its own institutional capabilities to be able to deal with what will be continued pressures on our southern border with Guatemala.

KELLY: Ambassador, thank you.

SARUKHAN: No, it's my pleasure.

KELLY: Arturo Sarukhan - he was Mexico's ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.