U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing the outlines of a deal that would dramatically increase Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts and give the United States far more latitude to deport Central Americans seeking asylum, according to a U.S. official and a Mexican official who cautioned that the accord is not finalized and that President Trump might not accept it.
Faced with Trump’s threat to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican goods beginning Monday, Mexican officials have pledged to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the country’s border region with Guatemala, a show of force they say will make immediate reductions in the number of Central Americans heading north toward the U.S. border.
The Mexican official and the U.S. official said the countries are negotiating a sweeping plan to overhaul asylum rules across the region, a move that would require Central Americans to seek refuge in the first foreign country they set foot upon after fleeing their homeland.
Under such a plan, the United States would swiftly deport Guatemalan asylum seekers who set foot on U.S. soil to Mexico. And the United States would send Honduran and Salvadoran asylum applicants to Guatemala, whose government held talks with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan last week. Central American migrants who express a fear of death or torture if sent back to their home countries would be interviewed by a U.S. asylum officer to determine if the chances of such harm were more likely than not — a higher screening standard with a greater likelihood of rejection than current procedures.
Mexico has repeatedly said it will not accept the kind of “Safe Third Country” agreement that the U.S. has with Canada, a pact that requires asylum seekers to apply for refuge in whichever country they arrive in first, as each are considered safe havens. But the Mexican official said the government is willing to make asylum changes for the sake of a coordinated regional approach.
The officials described the accord’s framework on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the international negotiations, but they expressed optimism that the deal was attainable. Officials from both countries said they did not know if the terms would assuage Trump and alleviate the tariff threat; Trump plans to charge a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods unless the country can show it will take steps to reduce the flow of migrants streaming to the U.S. border.
The asylum modifications are likely to face challenges in U.S. courts, but legal efforts have thus far failed to stop the Trump administration from sending thousands of Central Americans to Mexico to await their asylum hearings outside U.S. territory.
“Any change to the asylum system that does not provide the safeguards required by domestic and international laws will not survive a legal challenge,” said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.
Significant differences remain about how quickly and how much Mexico can reduce unauthorized migration through tougher enforcement measures, the U.S. official said. Last month, U.S. authorities made more than 144,000 arrests along the southern border, the highest level in 13 years.
Trump officials have told Mexico that is not enough, making it clear that the White House will only be satisfied with a return to the numbers tallied in the months after Trump was inaugurated, when arrests fell below 20,000, the lowest level in half a century.
U.S. authorities continue to push for a more forceful and intimidating enforcement approach from Mexico, while Mexico is urging the United States to address the underlying structural problems in Central America — poverty, violence and drought — that are driving emigration.
Trump gave indications Thursday that the talks had made progress, but he told reporters that he had not made up his mind.
“Something pretty dramatic could happen,” he said, referring to the talks with Mexican diplomats, which continued Thursday in Washington. “We’ve told Mexico the tariffs go on. And I mean it, too.”
Trump also dismissed Republican senators who have threatened to block his tariff plans, saying they “have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to tariffs.”
Trump spoke before leaving Shannon, Ireland, for Normandy, France, where he took part in ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings that helped turn the tide of World War II.
During negotiations Wednesday with Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard and Mexican Ambassador Martha Barcena, Vice President Pence and other members of the U.S. team were encouraged by the Mexican proposals, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Mexico said it will deploy 13 contingents of newly formed National Guard units that will operate like a militarized police force, with 10 groups of 450 to 600 troops assigned to the border with Guatemala. Three additional contingents will deploy to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, a geographic chokepoint, to set up roadblocks and highway checkpoints.
By September, up to 6,000 National Guard troops will be deployed in southern Mexico, up from the force of 1,500 federal police officers currently there, officials said.
“That’s a remarkable and significant commitment of resources beyond what they’ve previously dedicated to countering human smuggling,” said the U.S. official familiar with the negotiations. “It’s also remarkable that they have identified the need for more detention, processing and repatriation ability, which will be necessary for any sustained effort.”
The senior Mexican official said the soaring number of arrests by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — which have topped 100,000 for three months in a row — have forced the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to depart from an approach that welcomed Central American migrants.
“There’s a recognition on both sides that what we’ve been doing isn’t enough,” the official said. “We need to take different measures.”
The U.S. negotiators are urging Mexico to more aggressively broadcast to Central American migrants that their country cannot be a transit point for an unauthorized journey to the United States.
Mexican officials are looking for the Trump administration to commit to programs that will ease some of the short-term pressures in Central America that are fueling migration, especially crop failures and hunger. They at one point told Pence, McAleenan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States could have a major impact by “investing $10 million for irrigation equipment in rural Honduras.”
The U.S. official praised the proposals set forth by Barcena, whose previous diplomatic posting was in Turkey, giving her a front-row view of the Syrian refugee crisis. “Her contributions were invaluable,” the U.S. official said.
A Trump official said Thursday that Mexican attorneys and White House lawyers were meeting to discuss the accord. The Mexican official also cautioned that the legal framework for the accord had yet to be hashed out.
On Capitol Hill, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said he would introduce a resolution of disapproval if the president proceeds with the planned tariffs. Lawmakers could thwart Trump’s import tax plan only if they can deliver a two-thirds vote, enough to override a presidential veto.
“The president’s proposed tariffs would hurt American workers, businesses, and consumers. Commandeering U.S. trade policy to influence border security is an abuse of power,” Neal said. “If the president does declare a national emergency and attempt to put these tariffs into place, I will introduce a resolution of disapproval to stop his overreach.”
In Mexico City, meanwhile, López Obrador said he was “optimistic” that the two sides would reach an accord.
The Trump administration is demanding that Mexican authorities intensify efforts to prevent Central American migrants from crossing Mexico to reach the United States.
Trump threatened last week to impose a 5 percent tariff on all goods imported from Mexico starting June 10 to force the Mexican government to address what his administration calls a migration “emergency.”
If Mexico fails to satisfy Trump, the tariff would increase by 5 percentage points at the start of subsequent months until it hits 25 percent on Oct. 1.
Vice President Pence, who led Wednesday’s talks, said the two sides had “a good discussion.” But the Mexican government’s proposed remedies were “not nearly enough,” he said.
“We need Mexico to do more,” Pence said.
In May, U.S. border agents detained roughly 144,000 people trying to enter the country without authorization — almost three times the figure from the same month one year ago.
Talks were scheduled to continue Thursday at the State Department.
Speaking at a news conference, López Obrador announced plans to travel to the border city of Tijuana, where he said he would hold a “unity” rally on Saturday to “defend the dignity of Mexico” and support “friendship with the United States.”
López Obrador said without providing details that the event would be open to the public and would feature politicians, religious figures and business leaders.
“There we will set our position, which, I repeat, will take into account that we want to have a good neighbor with the United States, but at the same time defending the dignity of Mexico,” he said. “We want to act with great prudence, but at the same time with firmness in the defense of our sovereignty.”
López Obrador initially responded harshly to Trump’s latest threat, writing in a letter to the U.S. president last week that his “America First” policy was “a fallacy.” But he has since emphasized his interest in maintaining a warm relationship with Trump.
Trump’s abrupt tariff threat has imperiled prospects for congressional ratification of his new North American trade deal. Roughly two weeks ago, Trump agreed to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Mexico and Canada, meeting a condition that Senate Republicans had set before they would vote on the proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That trade deal largely preserves the tariff-free trading relations between the United States and its southern neighbor established in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump routinely disparages as “one of the worst trade deals ever made.”
As Trump pushes ahead, business leaders and members of his own party are scrambling to head off the imposition of new tariffs that would likely result in retaliatory measures by Mexico targeting American farmers and manufacturers.
“We are committed to enhancing the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship and favor more trade, not tariffs. Imposing tariffs on Mexico does not address the root causes of migration and jeopardizes our shared economic interests,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Mexican counterpart, the Business Coordinating Council, said in a joint statement.
Through April, Mexico has been the largest U.S. trading partner. Last year, when it ranked third behind China and Canada, Mexico shipped almost $350 billion worth of autos, auto parts, industrial machinery and farm products to U.S. customers.
With little more than 96 hours remaining before the tariffs are scheduled to take effect, businesses across the United States are scrambling to draw up contingency plans.
“We’re very concerned,” said Adam Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing for Trans-Matic Manufacturing in Holland, Mich. “Businesses crave certainty. When the rules are constantly changing, we have a hard time.”
Sieff reported from Mexico City. Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.