Donald Trump’s rhetoric about migrants and his promise to wall off the US’s southern border have prompted Joe Biden to apologize on behalf of a nation and driven former Mexican President Vicente Fox to swearing.

But even if the border wall is never built, many in Mexico fear that Trump’s comments about the country will result in a more draconian US border policy, threatening to derail two decades of closer ties and economic integration brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“There is no winning for Mexico in this situation,” says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “The only win is if Trump loses down the line. But you can be sure that his policy on immigration will be followed at the border.”

Biden made his apology at an appearance on Thursday with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City, where Trump’s rise on a wave of nativism is causing disquiet.

Mexicans have lampooned Trump on social media satires, rebuked him as racist and beaten Trump piñatas – made with special attention to his hairdo – at birthday parties.

GOPUSA Editor’s Note: This is absolutely outrageous! Our vice president is apologizing? For what? Mexico has immigration laws that are actually enforced! They don’t allow illegal aliens. And yet, the idea of having the same kind of policies is somehow racist if America does it? Americans deserve a safe, secure border. We should not be apologizing for anything!

Yet his rhetoric is spooking the country’s elites, whose attitudes towards migrants have not always been positive, and whose inability to clean up corruption or create jobs have prompted millions of Mexicans to head north.

“[Trump] talks about the reasons for Mexicans going there: lack of jobs, widespread corruption,” says Rodolfo Soriano Núñez, a sociologist in Mexico City. “It really clouds any possible [bilateral] migration agreement, which is the goal of any Mexican as they need an agreement to keep avoiding a major [program of] social reforms.”

Some in the political class are starting to fire back. A pair of former presidents, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, have denounced Trump and his plans for Mexico to pay for his proposed border wall.

The comments by Fox – who, as a plain-spoken outsider candidate, ended seven decades of one-party rule with his election in 2000 – were replayed on Friday by the Fox Business Network : “I have to say that we are not, I am not going to pay for that f***ing wall.”

Peña Nieto has been more circumspect, though he alluded to Trump during his appearance with Biden. “Building walls is just isolating oneself,” he said. In a speech to the UN general assembly last September, he warned ominously of “populism” – though is was interpreted as much as an attack on perennial presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was leading the polls at the time, as Trump.

Others are urging Peña Nieto – not known for an ability to improvise or straying from scripts and teleprompters – to go on the offensive, even if it runs the risk of offering fodder for future Trump attacks.

“Against Trump, we cannot stay on the defensive. No one has reviled us like this since [president James] Polk in 1846” – author of the Mexican-American war – “has reviled us like this,” tweeted historian and public intellectual Enrique Krauze.

“Silence is acquiescence,” said Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, who argued that the country’s politicians could no longer hope to avoid provoking Trump by staying silent. “Now we are his punching bag. Time to hit back.”

The Trump threat comes at a time cooperation had increased between the two countries in areas such as trade and, more recently, security as Mexico cracked down on drug cartels. Mexico has also started detaining and deporting record numbers of Central American migrants, long before they reach the US border.

“There wasn’t much more [Mexican officials] could do to please the Americans,” says Estévez, who believes the best Mexico can hope for now is a return to a “more polite nativism”.

“They thought cooperation with the US was enough,” he said. “Then comes Trump.”

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