Mexico’s incoming government is under pressure not to bow to President Donald Trump’s demand that it act as a buffer for Central American migrants seeking to come to the US, as the country prepares for the inauguration of president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The incoming administration denied reports that it had struck a so-called Remain in Mexico deal with senior US officials under which migrants would wait on the Mexican border until their asylum claims were processed by US courts. No formal agreement is possible until the new government takes office next Saturday.
But the incoming team did not deny that such a plan — which would align with the US president’s attempts to block thousands of migrants at the border and, at the current pace, could keep migrants in Mexico for months or years — had been discussed.
Nor did it deny that incoming interior minister Olga Sánchez Cordero had told The Washington Post, which first reported the purported deal: “For now, we have agreed to this policy of Remain in Mexico.”
Ms Sánchez Cordero was due to hold talks on Sunday with incoming foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard. The deal was said to have been struck with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Foreign policy observers believe the US had leaked the plan to enable Mr Trump to ratchet up pressure on Mr López Obrador’s administration.
The new government faces the immediate and escalating problem of what to do with the several thousand migrants straining the border city of Tijuana while the US drags its heels on asylum requests.
“The US is putting Mexico up against a wall,” said Gustavo Mohar, a former migration undersecretary, who saw “no coincidence” in the timing. Mexico needed to make clear if it was planning to accept to be the US’s “filter”, he added. Mr Trump, meanwhile, reiterated his uncompromising stance that “all [migrants] will stay in Mexico” and the US would close its border if “necessary”.
“Migrants at the Southern Border will not be allowed into the United States until their claims are individually approved in court,” he tweeted. Under previous policy, many asylum seekers were released while their claims crawled through immigration courts. “We only will allow those who come into our Country legally. Other than that our very strong policy is Catch and Detain. No “Releasing” into the U.S,” Mr Trump wrote.
The president has ordered a halt to the policy of allowing migrants to cross illegally before turning themselves in to request asylum. A federal judge last week froze the measure, setting the stage for further legal battles over Mr Trump’s hardline immigration policy.
Mr Trump wants Mexico to assume the mantle of “safe third country”, under which migrants would be obliged to seek refugee status on arrival there. By sheltering the migrants, Mexico is already informally operating “80 per cent as a third safe country”, said Roberto Velasco, an adviser to Mr Ebrard, and the Remain in Mexico idea was widely interpreted as a de facto safe third country arrangement.
Although the incoming government has offered to employ migrants willing to stay in Mexico, Ms Sánchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court judge, said in a statement that “the future government does not consider in its plans that Mexico should assume the condition of ‘safe third country’”.
Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, dismissed the notion as “ridiculous”. “Safe third country in one of the most unsafe countries in the world?” he said. “And the worst city in Mexico today is Tijuana.” Many questioned what Mexico would get out of any such arrangement.
“The outgoing Mexican government made the mistake in 2014 of agreeing to aggressive and deterrence-driven deportation policies of Central American migrants in exchange for zilch,” said Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to the US. “The incoming Mexican government should not repeat that mistake in seeking to appease Trump and avoid all and any confrontation with him, most importantly if no quid pro quo can be had,” he added.
Mr Castañeda said he believed the incoming government had agreed to migration demands in exchange for US backing for a revamped North American free trade deal, now dubbed USMCA. “I don’t know how he’s going to walk back from this, but it isn’t going to be easy,” he added.
Mr López Obrador takes office with the strongest mandate of any Mexican president in decades. “He should use that to be a tough negotiator,” said Mr Mohar, noting that any sign of weakness towards a US president who has made a habit out of being offensive to Mexicans and migrants “will be heavily criticised in Mexico”.
The two leaders have so far praised each other. But Mr López Obrador wants to secure US aid to spur development in Central America to deter migration — something that looks a tall order from a US president who has threatened to slash aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.