Written by Michael D. Shear and Azam Ahmed
Mexico and the United States are discussing significant changes in asylum rules and border enforcement that could forestall President Donald Trump from imposing tariffs on all Mexican imports, senior officials from both countries said Thursday.
The changes under consideration would give the United States a greater ability to reject requests for entry from migrant families fleeing violence in Central America, according to those officials. Under the new arrangement, migrants would be required to seek asylum in the first foreign country they enter after leaving their homes.
Guatemalans looking for refuge would have to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than the United States. And those fleeing El Salvador and Honduras would have to seek asylum in Guatemala rather than continuing on to Mexico or the United States.
If a deal is reached, Mexico would also allow an expansion of a U.S. program in which those seeking asylum in the United States are required to wait in Mexico while their legal cases proceed. About 8,000 migrants are waiting in Mexico, but under the agreement, that number could grow.
A Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are continuing and private, cautioned that there had been no agreement reached on the asylum discussions. And Trump, who has repeatedly demanded that Mexico end the recent surge of immigration into the United States, has not yet approved the direction of the talks. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in an email that “our position has not changed, and we are still moving forward with tariffs at this time.”
Mexican negotiators have also pledged to send 6,000 troops to Mexico’s border with Guatemala, the entry point for a recent surge of migrants who have then made their way through Mexico to the U.S. border. The Washington Post first reported the discussions Thursday.
Officials from both countries have been talking for several days about the steps Mexico could take to satisfy Trump’s demand to reduce the number of immigrants flooding into the United States.
Customs and Border Protection officials said this week that more than 144,000 people were taken into custody and arrested after entering the country illegally or without proper documentation in May, the largest number for any month in 13 years.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said Mexican offers to beef up enforcement to prevent illegal immigration were insufficient, an administration official said. Both Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the Mexicans to consider the asylum changes.
By Thursday, Mexican officials had indicated a willingness to consider the changes, the administration official said, though he cautioned that lawyers for the countries involved were still scheduled to meet throughout the day and into the evening to see if an agreement could be reached.
It remains unclear whether an agreement focused on more robust enforcement and changes to the region’s asylum laws would reduce the flow of migrants enough for Trump. In a series of tweets and remarks over the past week, Trump vowed to impose a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico could end the surge of migrants, especially those from Central America, pressing to cross the border. It was a problem, he said, that Mexicans could solve “in one day if they so desired.”
That demand from Trump loomed over the talks Pence and Pompeo had Wednesday with Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican foreign minister, according to a senior administration official familiar with the discussions in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
But diplomats on both sides of the border and immigration experts say the president’s demand for a total end to illegal immigration is fanciful. Most of those experts agree that Mexico could step up enforcement and provide more humanitarian relief to migrants but say stopping all illegal immigration into the United States is next to impossible.
“It shows a basic misunderstanding about the patterns of migration,” said Kevin Appleby, a veteran of Washington’s immigration wars over two decades. “The Mexican government could take some steps. But there are going to be ways that migrants get to our border regardless of what the Mexicans do.”
Hoping to mollify Trump, Ebrard said during Wednesday’s meeting that his government was willing to step up enforcement at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, where many of the Central American migrants begin their journey through Mexico to the U.S. border.
He also told Pence and Pompeo that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico is committed to cracking down on transnational gangs who make money by regularly trafficking migrants through Mexico, according to the U.S. official. Ebrard also promised that the Mexican government would offer asylum to thousands of Central American migrants who might otherwise seek protection in the United States.
Whatever the potential effects of the Mexican proposals, Pence and the other U.S. officials rejected them as likely to curtail illegal immigration only on the margins — and so did not meet the president’s demands.
The Americans told their Mexican counterparts that the president was insisting on wholesale changes to address the severity of the problem at the border. Among the steps they pushed was the adoption of a “safe third country” treaty that would require Mexico to allow any migrant from Central America or elsewhere to apply for asylum there rather than continuing on to the United States.
If such a treaty were signed, the United States could change its own asylum laws to prohibit anyone who has not requested asylum in Mexico from making the same request in the United States. Officials believe that could significantly reduce the number of migrants who seek refuge in the United States.
But Mexico has been firmly opposed to such a treaty for years, believing that it would make Mexico the country of last resort for migrants and refugees throughout the hemisphere. If that happened, the economic consequences for Mexico could be dire, officials there believe. Ebrard reiterated his country’s staunch opposition to the idea earlier in the week.
The disagreement — and Trump’s insistence on actions that could bring an end to the surge in immigration that has overwhelmed the southwestern border — had dimmed hopes for an immediate breakthrough before Monday’s tariff deadline.
But Thursday’s discussions, including talks between Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and lawyers for the Mexican government about changes to the asylum laws, appear to have increased optimism that the countries might reach an agreement in time to prevent the tariffs from being imposed.
It was unclear how the arrangement being discussed Thursday would differ from a traditional “safe third country” treaty. One official said the United States would still allow migrants to request entry into the country by expressing a fear that they would be tortured or put to death if they returned home. The burden of proof for those protections is typically much higher than it is for a common request for asylum.
Diplomats for Mexico and the United States met Thursday at the State Department. But officials stressed that Trump would be the one to decide whether the Mexican government was willing to do enough to escape the tariffs. The president is scheduled to return to Washington from Europe on Friday.