New York Times
By Gardiner Harris and Kirk Semple
February 22, 2017
MEXICO CITY — The Trump administration calls the visit a step toward mutual understanding, a way to move the relationship forward.
But as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson arrived in Mexico on Wednesday, twin threats hung over the frayed relationship between the two nations: President Trump’s new orders to round up and deport immigrants who are in the United States illegally, and a separate effort to take a hard look at all American aid to Mexico, possibly using it to pay for a border wall instead.
By Friday, American officials are required to finish calculating all the money and grants that the United States provides to Mexico, a task that Mr. Trump first demanded in the executive order he signed last month directing the construction of a border wall.
The Trump administration, which set the Friday deadline in an internal State Department memo this month, has not explicitly said why it ordered the review. But its inclusion in the executive order mandating that a wall be built suggests that Mr. Trump has linked the two issues — and may be looking for more leverage in negotiations with Mexico.
The timing adds to the deep tensions between the two countries. Mr. Tillerson, the top American official to visit Mexico since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, arrived with John F. Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, only a day after the Trump administration released documents ordering a crackdown on immigration in the United States.
Newspapers here have described the Trump administration’s new deportation policies in apocalyptic terms, saying in some cases that they represented “war” on the millions of Mexicans in the United States.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, said Wednesday that the package of immigration directives is “something that, without doubt, worries all of us Mexicans” and will be “the first point on the agenda” when he meets with his American counterpart.
Nothing about the meetings this week is likely to be easy, for either side. Mr. Tillerson met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office just before his departure, but there have been few signs that the secretary of state plays a pivotal role in setting the administration’s foreign policy agenda. He has largely been absent from important White House meetings with foreign leaders, has uttered few words in public since his confirmation and was not even allowed his choice of a top deputy.
Instead, Mr. Tillerson has largely been assigned to tidy up the confrontations Mr. Trump has had with longtime allies. Last week, he went to Germany to reassure his European counterparts that Mr. Trump valued NATO and the European Union, despite the president’s statements to the contrary.
Mr. Trump’s rift with Mexico is not only deeper, but also is likely to worsen.
For the Mexicans, the meetings will be an important step toward deciding whether to battle or appease an administration that has consistently excoriated their country.
It is a choice leaders around the world are grappling with. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, courted and flattered Mr. Trump, seeming to succeed in reversing decades of Mr. Trump’s criticisms of Japan. China’s president, Xi Jinping, seemed to publicly ignore Mr. Trump for weeks before Mr. Trump reversed himself on questioning the “One China” policy that nation holds so dear.
The Mexicans seem to be using a combination of outreach and complaint that has so far proved ineffective, as the twin blows this week demonstrated.
The review of American aid due on Friday, for instance, is likely to highlight about $1 billion that has been allocated but not yet spent under the Merida Initiative, a bilateral partnership begun in 2007 that focuses on fighting organized criminal groups, re-engineering the judicial system, modernizing the border between the two countries and strengthening civil society groups.
Most of the American foreign aid to Mexico is provided under the aegis of the initiative. Since it was signed, Congress has appropriated more than $2.8 billion for those programs, of which at least $1.6 billion has been delivered to Mexico, according to a report in January by the Congressional Research Service.
Some Mexican officials and civil society leaders have been alarmed by the suggestion that Mr. Trump could cut assistance to key initiatives that bolster community-building and the rule of law to help pay for a wall that many on both sides of the border say would probably fail in stop the flow of illegal drugs, weapons and immigration.
But perhaps even more worrisome to Mexico is the threat to deport to millions of its citizens who, with settled lives and jobs in the United States, provide most of the nearly $25 billion in remittance payments to Mexican families every year.
The Trump administration also said it planned to detain non-Mexicans who had crossed the southwest border with the United States and send them back to Mexico to await the outcome of their deportation proceedings.
Though American officials said that this measure would be done only after discussions with the Mexican government, Mexican officials and legal experts rejected the idea as a violation of Mexican law and international accords.
At an event in Mexico City on Wednesday, Mr. Videgaray said, “I want to make clear, and in the most emphatic way, that the Mexican government and the Mexican people do not have to accept orders that a government seeks to impose unilaterally on another.”
That threat to saddle Mexico with other countries’ migrants is one reason Mexican officials could emerge from their meetings this week deciding to fight rather than appease the Americans. For months, in the face of a hostile stance by Mr. Trump, President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a largely conciliatory strategy, not allowing himself to be provoked by the American president despite increasing calls from the Mexican electorate for a tougher stance.
Then last month, Mr. Peña Nieto canceled his meeting in Washington with Mr. Trump, prompting a rare uptick in his woeful approval ratings. The Trump administration responded by accusing Mexico of burdening the United States with undocumented immigrants, criminals and a trade deficit.
If relations worsen significantly, Mr. Peña Nieto could make life difficult for Mr. Trump by limiting or stopping Mexican cooperation on a range of fronts, analysts said.
Beyond the billions in trade, the two countries cooperate on many security issues. Mexico could limit its sharing of information, like the lists of passengers aboard international flights, and loosen visa rules for citizens of nations suspected of harboring terrorists.
It could also limit its cooperation in the realm of migration by, for example, detaining fewer unauthorized migrants traveling from Central America and allowing more people to reach American borders. Mexico, which has long provided a militarized buffer against the flow of drugs to the United States, could also relax its prosecution of the drug war.
Mexico “has many cards to play,” said Carlos Heredia, a professor at CIDE, a Mexican research center. “Mexico must approach these conversations knowing the issue of bilateral cooperation and security is deeply intertwined with immigration issues and regional, commercial integration.”
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