Wall Street Journal
By Felicia Schwartz, José de Córdoba and Robbie Whelan
February 23, 2017
MEXICO CITY—Top Trump administration officials tried Thursday to soften the message on expanded U.S. immigration-enforcement efforts during talks here, but Mexican officials signaled little progress had been made in bridging differences that threaten to further fray ties between the two countries.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly faced a skeptical Mexican government as they sought to explain Washington’s decision to step up the enforcement of immigration laws, outlining policies to enlist local authorities in the U.S. to jail and deport more people and to send detainees back to Mexico—even if they aren’t Mexican.
Meanwhile in Washington, President Donald Trump made comments that seemed to sharpen the tone.
“All of a sudden for the first time we’re getting gang members out, we’re getting drug lords out, we’re getting really bad dudes out of this country at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before,” the president said during a White House event with manufacturing executives. “And it’s a military operation because they’re allowed to come into our country.”
“We’re going to have a good relationship with Mexico I hope,” Mr. Trump said. “And if we don’t, we don’t.”
In midday meetings in Mexico City, the U.S. cabinet members delivered two key assurances to their Mexican counterparts: that they wouldn’t institute “mass deportations,” and that the U.S. military wouldn’t take part in rounding up and ejecting illegal migrants.
Gabriela Cuevas, the head of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee, said she was deeply troubled by the apparent discrepancy between what the U.S. envoys said in Mexico City and Mr. Trump’s actions and words.
“I see a different message coming from the White House and from the secretaries visiting here,” she said. “One doesn’t know if Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly are telling the truth or not. It’s a problem of credibility. Did they come to tell lies? Or are they just not coordinating with their boss? Who do you believe?”
Later Thursday, the White House sought to walk back Mr. Trump’s use of the word “military” in reference to the immigration enforcement.
“The president was using that as an adjective. It’s happening with precision and in a manner in which it’s being done very, very clearly,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, at a news briefing. “The president was clearly describing the manner in which this was being done.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s comments had the effect of driving home his administration’s determination to up the tempo of enforcement and deportation operations, regardless of their effect on the U.S.’s southern neighbor.
Raúl Benítez, a security analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said while mass deportations haven’t begun, Mr. Trump’s statements and the newly published U.S. guidelines have sown fears among the U.S.’s 55 million-person Hispanic community.
“There’s a very toxic climate of terror,” said Mr. Benítez. “Whatever they agree to here seems of dubious value for the relationship.”
Messrs. Kelly and Tillerson met with their Mexican counterparts, Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, later meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto. The meeting between the U.S. officials and the president went ahead even after a top Mexican official had suggested earlier that Mr. Peña Nieto might cancel.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s office said the president stressed to the U.S. envoys that Mexico’s priority was protecting the citizens’ rights in the U.S., adding that the meetings underscored both governments’ desire to work past the current turbulence.
Mr. Videgaray, speaking to reporters Thursday alongside Messrs. Tillerson, Kelly and Osorio, emphasized the anger and “irritation” that Mr. Trump’s policies and statements have caused among Mexicans.
He called for talks dealing with the entire relationship, linking immigration and security issues to the continued trade relationship.
“Reaching agreements with the U.S. will be a long road, but today we have taken a step in the right direction,” Mr. Videgaray said after the meeting. “The differences persist, and we will continue to work on issues of interest for Mexicans as they will continue to do so for Americans.”
Mr. Videgaray said the talks were taking place at a “complicated moment,” adding both countries agreed on the need to continue talks. Mr. Tillerson said the sides both aired their grievances.
“We jointly acknowledged that, in a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences. We listened closely and carefully to each other as we respectfully and patiently raised our respective concerns,” Mr. Tillerson said.
The Trump administration earlier this week unveiled the new immigration and deportation policies, based on an executive order issued by Mr. Trump last month. The policy calls for enlisting local U.S. authorities to enforce immigration law, jailing more people while they wait for their hearings, and trying to send border crossers back to Mexico to await proceedings. The latter rule would apply even to those who are not Mexican.
Mr. Videgaray said he told the U.S. officials that it was “legally impossible” for the U.S. to take unilateral decisions affecting both countries. Such decisions should be taken jointly and be the result of a process of dialogue and mutual agreement, the foreign secretary said.
One Mexican official described Mr. Kelly’s assertion that “there will be no use of military forces in immigration” as encouraging, seeing it as an apparent contradiction to Mr. Trump’s earlier statement.
Mr. Kelly said his statements were intended to correct inaccurate reporting by journalists, even though one appeared to contradict Mr. Trump. Opponents of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies often refer to expanded U.S. efforts in such terms.
Mr. Tillerson said the U.S. reiterated its commitment to stopping the illegal flow of weapons and cash on the border. “There is no mistaking that the rule of law matters along both sides of our shared border,” he said.
The officials discussed efforts to curtail irregular migration, by securing Mexico’s southern border and supporting efforts of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to improve conditions there.
Mr. Videgaray said Mexico was no longer producing illegal migrants, who are now coming from Central America. More than 220,000 migrants, most from Central America, were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in the past fiscal year. Last year, Mexico in turn deported some 140,000 Central American migrants who were headed to the U.S.
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