By Makini Brice and Dave Graham
WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump brandished a document on Tuesday confirming details of a regional asylum project agreed with Mexico to stave off threatened tariffs, saying the plan was “secret” even though Mexican officials had revealed much of it.
Trump, who has made containing illegal immigration a priority issue and has blamed Mexico for the problem since running for office in 2016, did not show the text of any document or give any details. However, a Reuters photograph of the sheet of paper allowed reporters to read parts of it.
Under duress because of Trump’s threat to impose tariffs unless Mexico stemmed a surge in migrants that has overwhelmed U.S. detention facilities and immigration courts, Mexico signed a pact last week agreeing to control the flow of people from Central America, including deploying 6,000 members of a new national guard along its border with Guatemala.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said Mexico also agreed to a 45-day timeline to show increased enforcement efforts were effective in reducing the people flows. If that fails, Mexico has agreed to consider a longstanding U.S. demand that Central American asylum seekers crossing through Mexico apply for refuge there, not the United States, making Mexico a “safe third country,” a demand that Mexico has long rejected.
“Safe third country could be applied if we fail, and we accept what they say,” Ebrard said on Tuesday evening, noting that Mexican legislators would then give consideration to accommodating a change in migration law.
Nevertheless, Ebrard said other Latin American countries should share the burden, something that the United States appeared to have agreed to.
The document that Trump waved at reporters laid out “a regional approach to burden-sharing in relation to the processing of refugee status claims to migrants”; talked of “45 days”; and said Mexico had committed to immediately examine its laws and rules to enable it to implement such an agreement.
Asylum is at the core of Trump’s concerns about a surge in undocumented migration because a large proportion of the people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border say they are fleeing violence and repression. Since many travel with children – who cannot be held in detention long-term – they are released into the United States to await the resolution of their asylum cases, something the president calls “catch and release.”
Many migrants say they are afraid of returning to their home countries, which triggers a U.S. immigration court process that can take months or years to resolve due to backlogs in the system. In January, the Trump administration began sending thousands of migrants back to Mexico to wait there instead.
Ebrard said those asylum seekers would start being returned to wait out their cases in Mexico via three more cities, which officials will decide on Friday.
Deployment of the national guard on Mexico’s border with Guatemala would begin on Wednesday, he added.
The vast majority of undocumented migrants arriving in the United States are from Central America, but significant numbers have also been arriving in recent months from Cuban and Haiti, via Panama, and from African countries, often via Brazil.
In comments on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would evaluate “daily” the progress of Mexico’s efforts. In an apparent reference to the regional asylum concept, he said the United States was also talking to Brazil, Central American nations and Panama.
Vice President Mike Pence also referred to a regional approach, suggesting Guatemala could receive asylum seekers from its neighbors.
“We also reached an agreement with Guatemala to reform our laws to essentially say that if people are looking for asylum they ought to be willing to apply for asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. We’ll only move on to that if it’s necessary,” Pence told the Fox News Channel’s “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Monday.
Revealing more details of Mexico’s strategy for rapidly putting the brakes on immigration, Ebrard said on Tuesday that border infrastructure on its southern frontier would be improved significantly. To meet its commitments to Washington, Mexican migration facilities in the south need to be revamped, he said.
“You go to the south and the first thing you ask yourself is ‘Right, where’s the border?’ There’s nothing. The idea is to make the south like the north as far as possible,” he said.
Over the weekend there was no sign that Mexico had started to harden the border, with migrants and locals crossing a river on rafts in sight of a busy official port of entry.
(Reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Makini Brice in Washington; Additional reporting by Noe Torres and Hugh Bronstein in Mexico City, Susan Heavey in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Susan Thomas, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)