Published 7:56 AM EDT Jun 7, 2019
WASHINGTON – The biggest flashpoint in the U.S.-Mexico negotiations over tariffs and immigration revolves around asylum – specifically which country should be responsible for absorbing the desperate migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
The Trump administration wants Mexico to agree to take almost every asylum seeker that crosses into Mexico – pushing the Mexican government to sign an agreement that would essentially bar Central American migrants from trying to gain asylum in the United States.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has resisted that step so far, although there were signs Thursday that Mexican negotiators might relent.
If that happens, the U.S. and Mexico could sign a little-known treaty – called a safe third-country agreement – that would carry huge implications for immigration in both countries.
“That’s probably the most important demand that we have of Mexico,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors stronger limits on immigration.
Migrants generally must seek asylum in the first country they reach after fleeing their homeland – but only if that country is considered safe. If it’s not safe, migrants can pass through – as they’re doing in Mexico right now – and apply in the next country they reach, in this case the United States.
If Mexico agrees to be designated as a safe third-party country, the U.S. could deny the asylum claims of virtually all the Central American migrants now seeking refuge in the U.S.
American immigration authorities could “turn them around and send them back” to Mexico, Krikorian said. He has accused Mexico of being an “asylum free rider” by enacting liberal asylum laws but steering most refugees to the U.S. border.
Designating Mexico as a safe asylum country “would really take away most of the incentive” for migrants to trek across Mexico to the U.S. border, Krikorian said.
But immigration advocates say Mexico’s asylum system is already overwhelmed, and the country is not safe – particularly for vulnerable migrants. Trump’s own State Department has advised Americans not to travel to five Mexican states, citing rampant and often violent crime.
“Robberies, extortion, kidnapping … these are common situations,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst with the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group devoted to stronger protections for immigrants.
The council recently conducted a survey of migrant mothers detained in Mexico, and 90% said they did not feel safe. Nearly half of the 500 women said that they or their child had been robbed, sexually assaulted, threatened or subject to other harm.
“The Mexican police and state agencies charged with providing security are often the very actors robbing migrants, charging them fees in order to pass, or handing them over to criminal groups who tax or victimize migrants,” Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas, wrote in a 2018 analysis of the issue.
She and others note that Mexico has already moved to take in more refugees. Asylum requests have increased each of the past five years, with the nation on track to reach nearly 60,000 in 2019, nearly double the number from the year before, according to data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance.
Leutert said Mexico’s government institutions are too weak to absorb more migrants than they’re already taking in.
“I think the U.S. should be working with Mexico more on these issues and not pushing all this enforcement onto a country that doesn’t” have the resources to handle it, she said in an interview.
Krikorian says the U.S. might need to offer Mexico financial assistance in exchange for an asylum agreement.
“I think we should combine carrots along with the sticks,” he said, referring to President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on all Mexican imports if the Obrador government does not stop the flow of migrants.
Indeed, Obrador has called for the U.S. to help Mexico address the root causes of the migrant crisis – urging the Trump administration to help foot the bill for economic development and other initiatives aimed at relieving the crippling poverty and corruption in Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries.
“The U.S. stance is centered on immigration control measures, while our focus is on development,” Roberto Velasco, a spokesman for the Mexican Foreign Ministry, tweeted on Thursday evening. “We have not yet reached an agreement but continue to negotiate.”
Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard declined to comment Thursday on the prospect of a safe third-country agreement. And the White House did not respond to questions about the Trump administration’s demands for that.
But Krikorian said a fat financial aid package could go a long way in persuading Mexico to accede to Trump’s demand.
“We can make it worth Mexico’s while, in combination with a stick that if they don’t take our more money that they’re going to suffer some consequences,” he said.
Contributing: Alan Gomez