A week after hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, ushering catastrophic flooding that has left at least 31 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, President Donald Trump continues to antagonize residents of Mexico, as well as Mexicans living in the United States.
As Houston and surrounding areas were dealing with historic water levels, Trump felt compelled to announce the pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, tweet about the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the ongoing talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and go ahead with the controversial Texas bill SB4, which was set to take effect this Friday (until blocked by a judge late Wednesday night).
No doubt the American president will have much more to say about all these issues. For its part, the Mexican government, once again declaring that it will not pay for a border wall under any circumstances, offered material and manpower assistance for the relief efforts in Texas. Trump has yet to respond to the offer, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Texas Governor Greg Abbott both have publicly accepted it. As has become the norm in the age of Trump, American international relations must be conducted around, and despite, the president.
Houston is a minority-majority city (meaning that the majority of the population is non-white) and has one of the largest concentrations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in America. Although Trump beat Hilary Clinton handily in Texas in the 2016 election, Clinton actually won Harris County (where Houston is located) by more than 12 percentage points.
Trump has repeatedly promised that the federal government will support the area when it comes to rebuilding after the storm, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the president’s attitude changes after the world’s attention turns towards the next crisis.
It is clear that Trump was not about to let Harvey shift his attention away from his main policy priority, illegal immigration to the United States. Last Friday, just as Harvey was making landfall, Trump announced the pardon of Arpaio, the controversial lawman from Maricopa County, Arizona, who had been sentenced for disobeying a court order forbidding him from inquiring over a person’s immigration status during an unrelated police stop. After calling Arpaio “an American patriot,” he proudly admitted that he decided to “drop Arpaio” on Friday because “in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.” The level of callousness implied in such a statement would be shocking coming from most politicians, but from Trump it’s simply more of the same.
On Aug. 27, as the devastation caused was Harvey was already very much apparent, Trump tweeted about the need for the border wall he promised during his campaign run, “with Mexico being one of the highest crime nations in the world,” and once again promised that Mexico would pay for the cost.
Soon after, he complained that Mexico (and Canada) were being “very difficult” during the NAFTA negotiations, which presumably meant that the two countries had the audacity of not agreeing to every single one of his demands. Mexico’s offer of assistance put the president in a delicate position. If he accepts it, he would be acknowledging Mexico’s generosity and thereby undermine his constant proclamations of the evils that come from that country. If he rejects it, he could be accused of neglecting Houstonian lives for political reasons.
Then there is SB4, which follows Arpaio’s example and allows law enforcement personnel to demand people declare their immigration status during traffic stops or other interactions unrelated to immigration. It so happens that Houston, along with other large Texas cities like Dallas and Austin, backed a lawsuit against the bill arguing its unconstitutionality. Late Wednesday night, Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando García blocked implementation of the bill. No doubt a long legal battle will be waged on the law’s merits.
As Mexican rescuers, vehicles, food, and other goods make their way across the border to assist the victims of Harvey over the next few days, it seems highly likely that Trump’s attacks against America’s southern neighbor will continue. During the press conference given by Tillerson and Chancellor Luis Videgaray, the Mexican diplomat assured his counterpart that “we are neighbors, we are friends, and this is what friends do.” Unfortunately, the most powerful actor on the stage does not seem to be much interested in friendly or neighborly relations.