MEXICO CITY – While President Donald Trump regularly berates Mexico for “doing nothing” to stop illegal migration, behind the scenes the two governments are considering a deal that could drastically curtail the cross-border migration flow.
The proposal, known as a “safe third country agreement,” would potentially require asylum-seekers transiting through Mexico to apply for protection in that nation rather than in the U.S. It would allow border guards to turn back such asylum-seekers at border crossings and quickly return to Mexico anyone who has already entered illegally seeking refuge, regardless of their nationality.
U.S. officials believe this type of deal would discourage many Central American families from trying to reach the United States. Their soaring numbers have strained U.S. immigration courts and overwhelmed the U.S. government’s ability to detain them.
“We believe the flows would drop dramatically and fairly immediately” if the agreement took effect, said a senior Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations with the Mexican government. The official said the talks had gathered momentum in recent weeks.
The proposed agreement has divided the Mexican government and alarmed human rights activists who maintain that many of the migrants are fleeing widespread gang violence and could be exposed to danger in Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met Tuesday in Guatemala with the foreign ministers of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
She said they are working on a regional campaign to discourage migrants and fight smugglers. The group is planning to meet again next month, and Nielsen said they hope to have more concrete plans.
The number of Central Americans claiming asylum in Mexico has risen sharply in recent years, and many analysts warn that the country does not have the capacity to settle fresh waves of people. Last year, Mexico’s refugee agency failed to attend to more than half of the 14,000 asylum applications that it received, said Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
Critics of the plan say that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government should not reach a deal at a time when the Trump administration has used tactics such as separating migrant parents from their children at the border.
“It’s ridiculous,” said one Mexican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Nobody really knows what it is we’re getting in return.”
Even so, some Mexican officials have warmed to the idea.
They argue that requiring Central Americans to apply for asylum in Mexico would undercut the smuggling networks that charge fees of $10,000 or more for a journey from Central America to the United States.
The senior DHS official said the U.S. government has signaled to Mexico that it would be prepared to offer significant financial aid to help the country cope with a surge of asylum-seekers, at least in the short term. The investment, which would be paid through the U.S. security-assistance plan for Mexico, the Merida Initiative, would quickly pay for itself, the DHS official said.
“Look at the amount of money spent on border security, on courts, on detention and immigration enforcement,” the senior official said. “It’d be pennies on the dollar to support Mexico in this area.”
The U.S. government has had a “safe third country” agreement with Canada since 2004, preventing migrants from transiting through that country to apply for asylum in the United States.
But violence has reached record levels in Mexico, and border states are particularly dangerous, which could put migrants at risk if U.S. authorities began busing Central Americans back into Mexico.
“It’s one thing to say we’re going to have a safe third-country agreement with Canada,” said Roberta Jacobson, who left her post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico this spring. “It’s another thing to say you’re safe and well as soon as you cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico.”