In an effort to mend frayed relations and re-set bilateral ties between two neighboring countries, senior officials from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration arrived Mexico City Friday, holding the first talks with Mexico President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his team, days after the leftist won a landslide election to a six-year team.
“We will talk up there,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked by traveling press what his message was to Obrador, before boarding the plane.
Pompeo joined Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for talks with senior officials in Mexico City.
“The whole goal of Secretary Pompeo’s trip is to advance that positive agenda and to work with the Mexican government across all of the issue areas where we can make progress on,” said a senior State Department official.
U.S. officials meet Friday with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Obrador, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso.
Kushner, who developed a back channel and close working relations with Videgaray Caso, joins Pompeo for the meeting at Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the U.S. and Mexico hold a joint press availability.
The high-profile meetings came amid strained relations between the two neighboring countries over illegal migration, border security, and trade negotiations.
To curb the influx of migrants — mostly from Central America — the two countries are said to be discussing a proposed “safe third country” agreement that could significantly reduce the flow of asylum seekers who journey through Mexico and cross illegally into the U.S.
A “safe third country” deal between Mexico and the U.S. would require asylum seekers from Central America to apply for protection in Mexico rather than at the U.S. border.
‘Important, complex’ issues
Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch is also among those in the U.S. delegation.
When asked if Washington would consider providing Mexico financial aid as an incentive and to help the country settle new asylum seekers, the senior State Department official told VOA “migration issues are an incredibly important and complex issue” that the Trump administration is addressing. He referred to the Department of Homeland Security that is taking the lead on such discussions.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said migrant flows are a shared responsibility among nations in Latin America, and Washington is working with regional governments to “find options for these individuals to remain within or closer to their countries of origin.”
Critics warned such an agreement could put migrants fleeing violence in further danger.
Due process a priority
American Immigration Council Policy Director Royce Murray told VOA Friday any such deal must ensure that Mexico can process “a high volume of asylum seekers …without compromising due process.”
“More importantly, we would need to assess whether Mexico can provide meaningful protections to asylum seekers,” Murray added. “While there are many issues on the table between the U.S. and Mexico, refugees cannot become a mere chit whose safety and security can be negotiated away.”
“The notion that Mexico is in any way safe for Central American asylum-seekers is preposterous,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the advocacy group Legal Aid Justice Center told VOA on Thursday.
“I have had countless Central American clients, mostly women, tell me that the treatment they received in Mexico — whether by the cartels, or the government, or both — was nearly as bad as the violence they were fleeing in their home countries,” he added.
Mexico officials had said the best way to tackle issues related to illegal migration and border security is to “spur development in Mexico.”
‘Better places to live’
Wednesday, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary on western hemisphere affairs, Kenneth Merten, told U.S. lawmakers that Washington is working with Mexico in tackling pressing issues through aid programs.
“Our assistance programs in the region seek to support rule of law and governance, and to make these countries better places to live, better places to do business, and thus ultimately reduce migration,” Merten said during a hearing Wednesday at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Pompeo will also discuss “continued U.S.-Mexico cooperation with the Nieto administration throughout the transition” and work closely with Obrador to continue strengthening the U.S.-Mexico relationship after the new administration takes office on Dec. 1, said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.