President Donald Trump has criticized Mexico for not doing enough to stop the flow of Central American migrants toward the U.S. — but an asylum deal under discussion this week could change that.
Officials from the Trump administration and the Mexican government will meet Thursday and Friday to discuss a possible “safe third country” agreement, according to two sources, one from the Homeland Security Department and one from the Mexican government.
Under such a pact, migrants would be required to seek asylum in Mexico if they passed through that country en route to the U.S. The U.S. and Canada inked a similar deal in 2002.
Reaching a safe third country agreement with Mexico won’t be easy, given the Mexican government’s profound irritation with President Trump, who has attacked Mexico (and Mexicans) repeatedly and still insists that Mexico ought to pay for a wall along the southwest U.. border. In addition, Mexico’s forthcoming July 1 presidential election has made President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling party wary of seeming too accommodating to the U.S. (Peña Nieto is not himself running.)
But if cemented, a U.S.-Mexico safe third country pact could slash the flow of migrants to the southwest border — all without any need to secure congressional approval. “It would be a huge deal,” one DHS official told POLITICO. “It’s definitely a real priority.”
The topic surfaced during meetings in recent months between the U.S. and Mexico, according to three U.S. and Mexican officials. According to these officials, the impending presidential election, which previously discouraged agreement, now may encourage it because opposition leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the front-runner. López Obrado has lambasted Peña Nieto’s government for excessive conciliation with the U.S., prompting many officials in both countries to see July 1 less as a deterrent and more as a deadline.
The Trump administration considers an asylum pact a priority, and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen cited it at a Senate subcommittee hearing earlier this month. But Mexican officials have been cagier.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray — interviewed by POLITICO in late April as he departed a meeting with Nielsen — said a possible asylum deal was “not in the cards for now.”
A DHS spokeswoman declined to comment.
A major question, which experts and officials from both countries struggle to answer, is what Mexico stands to gain from an agreement that could force it to accept thousands of additional migrants each year.
The most obvious answer is leverage in negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement. As the two countries and Canada continue to discuss a reworked version of NAFTA, any number of concessions could viewed as a trade-off.
Mexico’s economic secretary Ildefonso Guajardo said earlier this month that “all the issues” will be on the table during NAFTA talks, but it’s unclear whether that sentiment extends to immigration, according to Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“There is not much expectation that anything will be announced before the Mexican election,” she said.
Moreover, Meyer argues the Mexican government isn’t equipped to handle the current flow of migrants, much less a greater number.
“Migrants are frequently victims of crime in Mexico,” she said. “They’re targeted for extortion, for kidnapping, for robbery. It would be hard to think that [Central American] migrants would feel safe in Mexico.”
Still, the meetings this week will try to advance an agreement, according to the DHS and Mexican officials. The talks will cover “technical and legal” aspects of a safe third country agreement, according to two related documents reviewed by POLITICO.
Mexican Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez is slated to attend the confab, which will take place at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue, according to a DHS official.
Videgaray will remain in Mexico City, but he’ll still have two top emissaries in attendance: Narciso Campos, his chief of staff, and José Luis Stein, deputy secretary of the interior.
The expected participants from the U.S. side include, tentatively, James McCament, the acting head of the DHS policy office; Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
John Creamer, a top State Department official for Mexico, Central America and Cuba, could also join the meetings.
One skeptic at DHS said the agreement — even if it could be reached — amounts to more of a political move and doesn’t take the best interest of asylum seekers into account.
“There are all these ways that in another administration, this could be a positive step,” the official said. “But that’s just not what’s going on here. This is just an effort to send people back with no process.”
Eric Olson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s pushing a problem downstream,” he said, “and I don’t know that it solves much of anything.”