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Mexico's Ambassador To The U.S. Discusses Immigration And Trade

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After days of sharply criticizing Mexico for doing too little to tamp down on illegal immigration, president Trump had this to say today.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are preparing for the military to secure our border between Mexico and the United States. We have a meeting on it in a little while with General Mattis and everybody. And I think that it's something we have to do.

KELLY: Trump says the military will stay at the border until a border wall is built or, quote, proper security is put in place. The administration offered no other details on the plan.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier today before President Trump announced his military directive, I met with Mexico's representative in Washington, Ambassador Geronimo Gutierrez, and I asked him to respond to Trump's repeated accusation that Mexico is doing very little, if not nothing, to address illegal border crossings.

GERONIMO GUTIERREZ: I would beg to differ. We do have a daunting task and challenge in better addressing immigration. But if you look at some figures of the past years, you will see that Mexico has repatriated a very large number of Central Americans that enter Mexico through our southern border. Just in 2016, that number was around I think 153,000 people. During 2017, that number was close to a hundred thousand people.

CORNISH: So these are people you have sent back to their home countries.

GUTIERREZ: We have repatriated them respecting very strictly their human rights and according to international established procedures.

CORNISH: So you're saying it could be worse if Mexico wasn't taking action.

GUTIERREZ: Well, yes, I do believe that if Mexico was not doing that, probably the situation in our shared border would be a little bit more complicated.

CORNISH: The president has at times made the connection between his concerns about migration over the border and, at the same time, threatened NAFTA because NAFTA negotiations are going on while we're hearing about all of this. And that's the North American Free Trade Agreement. It lifted tariffs on goods traded between Canada and Mexico and the U.S. When he makes a threat about pulling out, do you believe him?

GUTIERREZ: Well, what I believe is that it is in the best interest of the three countries to modernize NAFTA in a way that all of us benefit. Negotiations are taking place. We do believe that NAFTA has been on balance a good agreement for the three countries. We also recognize that there...

CORNISH: The president called it, like, one of the worst deals in history. So he does not see it - right? - on balance as a benefit to the U.S.

GUTIERREZ: I guess that in diplomacy, would need - sometimes is needed to open room to agree, to disagree on certain issues. I'm not saying that NAFTA has been perfect. I think that it can certainly be improved. I like to think that that is the intent behind the administration's position. We do believe that Mexico would not be well-served by having NAFTA finish. But we also believe that the United States would not be well-served by finishing NAFTA.

People here in the United States are hurting in many places and in many regions. The same happens in Mexico. If you ask someone in the Midwest states here in the United States, they might feel a bit threatened about all of that globalization implies and about international trade. If you go and ask a farmer in Mexico that has always been linked, for example, to corn, he will probably or she will probably feel the same thing.

But nevertheless, Mexico has become a very important destination for U.S. exports, and that benefits a lot of people and helps create a lot of jobs in the United States. It is estimated that at least 5 million jobs are direct - in the United States, are directly dependent upon trade with NAFTA. And pretty much the same thing happens in Mexico.

CORNISH: Hanging over all of this is rhetoric about the wall, which is a campaign pledge from President Trump that has carried over into his administration, a conversation that he has not let go of and has still talked about Mexico paying for it and/or finding other ways to eke it out of Mexican citizens. What is your response to that?

GUTIERREZ: Two quick things - number one is Mexico does understand the importance of having a secure border. We're in favor of having a secure border. Number two, there are some things that we just simply have to agree to disagree, and the issue of the wall is precisely one in which we are agreeing to disagree.

CORNISH: And the current stance that we've heard from Mexican leadership is Mexico will not pay for a wall.

GUTIERREZ: We will certainly not pay for a wall.

CORNISH: We are here at the embassy. You are the top diplomat, and you are speaking diplomatically (laughter). And there has been criticism in Mexico that the administration is being too soft on America and Trump, right? You're hearing that very loudly from the leading candidate in the presidential election right there, Lopez Obrador. He has said that Mexico and its people will not be the pinata for any foreign government, and this message seems to be resonating. Do you think your government has miscalculated something here?

GUTIERREZ: Let me tell you something. This is not the first time that I have been blamed for being soft in the relationship with the United States, and I really don't mind because I think that the relationship with the United States is important for Mexico. I've said so publicly. I've said that I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that Mexico and the U.S. can and should have a positive relationship.

But that does not mean that at any cost. There are limits for both sides. Those limits are pretty clear I think. I do expect that there will continue to be more noise about the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Quite frankly, the same happens in the U.S. often even during the campaigns. But in the end, reality tends to impose itself.

I have a good friend of mine who was a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He spent a good amount of years in Mexico, and I was his counterpart. And we used to say that sometimes being in this position of managing the U.S.-Mexico relationship was a bit - it felt a bit like being a cork in a river. And we were just trying to avoid getting to either one of the extremes and hopefully soon to calmer waters. And I think that's what we're doing.

CORNISH: Well, Ambassador Gutierrez, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GUTIERREZ: Oh, it's my pleasure.

CORNISH: That was Mexico's ambassador in Washington, Geronimo Gutierrez. We followed up with the ambassador later in the day to get his reaction to President Trump's announced plan to send the U.S. military to secure the border. He had this to say.

KELLY: Quote, "we have formally requested a clarification on the president's comments from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. We share the idea of having a secure border, but we do not always agree on how to achieve that goal. Mexico naturally will always act in accordance with our own interests." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.