Last spring, the Trump administration began pushing an idea onto Mexican officials: Mexico should sign a “safe third country” agreement with the United States that would allow the growing wave of Central American immigrants to apply for asylum in the country, effectively authorizing U.S. border agents to summarily turn back potential refugees.
Then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had begun insisting on the possibility of such an understanding with Mexico’s representatives as early as April. She urged immigrants making their way north to “seek protection” in Mexico before considering doing so in the United States. Still, despite Nielsen’s perseverance, Mexican officials didn’t budge. Then-Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray dismissed the possibility. “A safe third country status would turn Mexico into a final destination for immigrants and would invalidate any further bid for asylum in the United States. That’s why we’ve rejected it,” Videgaray said.
Nielsen and Videgaray are now gone, but the idea of a “safe third country” agreement, similar to the one the United States has with Canada, is still making the rounds within the DHS. Two weeks ago, the department’s advisory council issued a report on the humanitarian crisis brewing at the border. It paints a somber picture of the recent immigrant surge and its dramatic human cost and lays out recommendations, including an urgent increase in the number of immigration judges, a path for expediting the current backlog and new measures to establish accurate parentage of children.
The report also urges the Trump administration to negotiate what it calls the North American Family Protection Initiative — essentially, again, a “safe third country” deal with Mexico that would, it assumes, “dramatically reduce the number of migrants with a child in tow from Central America.”The initiative would be, according to the DHS council, “the single most important action” the administration could take to manage the immigrant crisis from Central America.
The report insists that the agreement could be mutually advantageous for Mexico and the United States but places the onus for its intricate implementation and success squarely on the Mexican government’s shoulders. “Mexico will enhance its process for asylum so that it is substantially equivalent to ours,” the report theorizes. “Mexico will provide appropriate protection for asylees in its territory.”
Easier said than done.
Given the current conditions in Mexico, the report might be indulging in a particularly cynical bout of wishful thinking.
Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s government has been a compliant partner on immigration. It has agreed to the White House’s demands for enhanced enforcement and deterrence within Mexico and docilely accepted the return of potential Central American refugees to Mexican soil to wait out their asylum processes as part of the controversial “Remain in Mexico” scheme — leaving Democrats and nongovernmental organizations in the United States completely baffled.
What it has certainly not done is improve the country’s capacity to deal with the surge in potential refugees in a humane way. Quite the contrary. In strict opposition to the recommendations of groups such as Human Rights Watch, the López Obrador administration drastically cut funds to official agencies that deal with immigration. COMAR, the government’s commission for refugees, operates almost on fumes: Its yearly budget is now a little more than $1 million, a 20 percent decrease from the agency’s already meager 2018 allocation. This for an agency that has to handle tens of thousands of cases a year. To say that Mexico is not ready to take on the burden of being a supposedly safe third country is an understatement. Mexico’s alarming increase in violence makes this proposal a complete farce.
The Mexican government doesn’t seem too keen on the idea, either. In a recent interview, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena, told me that an agreement like the one described in the DHS report is just “not in the cards right now.” Bárcena acknowledged that U.S. authorities have brought up the possibility of such a deal “on multiple occasions.” Mexico, she told me, remains opposed to the idea.
Part of the problem, Bárcena said, is the steep difficulties that Mexico would encounter (and currently faces, given the financial constraints at agencies like COMAR) in merely processing tens of thousands of refugee requests and potentially absorbing large numbers of Central American immigrants who would settle in the country.
Bárcena then struck an emphatic tone. An experienced diplomat, Bárcena was Mexico’s ambassador to Turkey when, in 2016, that country negotiated an understanding with the European Union to deal with the growing tide of Syrian refugees — a deal similar to the one proposed now by the DHS’s council to Mexico. The agreement included nearly 6 billion euros to support Turkey’s efforts. “Would we reach that level of involvement, of resources?” Bárcena asked. “Would the United States be willing to offer some concessions on immigration to both Mexico and Central America? Which ones, exactly?”
Bárcena has a point. For all of its recent willingness to appease President Trump’s nativist impulses, Mexico’s current government seems sadly uninterested in strengthening the country’s institutions to process thousands of potential asylees, much less offer them real, lasting options for taking root. For that, Mexico would need from the United States the sort of commitment Turkey got from the European Union. So would Central America. Good luck convincing Trump of such daring generosity.