The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Post photographer snapped an image of Trump’s alleged secret Mexico deal. Here’s what it says.

President Trump showed reporters a piece of paper June 11 that he said contained his administration's trade deal with Mexico. He declined to provide details. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated with Mexico’s response.

President Trump has claimed for two days that he secured a secret immigration deal with Mexico — beyond the one announced Friday. But the White House has declined to disclose any details, and Mexico has denied it. Confronted with understandable skepticism that such a deal exists, Trump produced a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket Tuesday.

And a particularly good photographer, The Washington Post’s Jabin Botsford, snapped an image that reveals some of the document’s contents. That image allows us to glean some clues.

Here’s the image, which Botsford helpfully flipped for readability:

This appears to show the middle portion of the document. Another image, from White House Watch, shows what appears to be a preceding portion, along with what follows the signatures at the end.

Below I’ve combined what we can see in the two photos to reconstruct the document. Where I’m inferring some letters, I’ll put it in brackets:

[UNREADABLE] such agreement would [UNREADABLE] party’s domestic and international legal obligations, a commitment under which each party would accept the return, and process refugee status claims, of third-party nationals who have crossed that party’s territory [UNREADABLE] other party. The parties further intend [UNREADABLE] an agreem[ent] [UNREADABLE] to burden-sharing in relation to the processing of refuge[es] [UNREADABLE].
Mexico also commits to immediate[ly] [UNREADABLE] domestic laws and regulations with a view to identifying any changes that [UNREADABLE] to bring into force and implement such an agreement.
If the United States determines, at its discretion and after consultation with Mexico, after 45 calendar days from the date of the issuance of the Joint Declaration, that the measures adopted by the Government of Mexico pursuant to the Joint Declaration have not sufficiently achieved results in addressing the flow of migrants to the southern border of the United States, the Government of Mexico will take all necessary steps under the domestic law to bring the agreement into force with a view to ensuring that the agreement will enter into force within 45 days.

Signed on this 7th of June, 2019 in Washington, D.C. by:
On behalf of the United States On behalf of Mexico

A few observations:

1. The first question is obviously whether the document is legitimate. It is signed by two people, that we can see, but neither of these signatures are from the countries’ respective presidents, top diplomats or ambassadors to the other country. They appear to belong to Marik A. String, acting legal adviser in the U.S. State Department, and Alejandro Celorio Alcantara, a deputy legal adviser in Mexico’s Foreign Ministry.

2. The document clearly deals with some kind of “burden-sharing” involving “refugees.” The prevailing wisdom is that Trump, in citing a secret deal, may have been referring to some kind of pact involving asylum rules, possibly a “safe third country agreement” in which Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States would be held in Mexico while their claims are processed. (This is a controversial topic in Mexico, and the Mexican government has denied any such agreement.) That appears to be what this document deals with. We don’t generally refer to asylum seekers as “refugees,” but the concept is similar. The part about how “each party would accept the return, and process refugee status claims, of third-party nationals who have crossed that party’s territory” sounds a lot like some kind of “safe third” agreement.

3. It’s not clear from the text what the agreement might entail beyond that — or whether all the details have been sorted out. The second paragraph sounds like standard language indicating that Mexico must determine what laws or regulations must be changed. The third paragraph suggests that this is something the United States can trigger after 45 days and that it would be up to the Mexican government to put it into effect in the next 45 days. This all tracks with Trump’s tweet suggesting that the Mexican legislature would need to be consulted, which makes sense if this has to do with asylum rules.

4. The big question is what’s in the part above what we can see and how much force it carries. It seems unlikely, given that there is only one-third of a sheet of paper above that first visible paragraph, that there are extensive guidelines for what the deal entails. (Trump said this was one sheet of a larger agreement, for what it’s worth.) The lack of signatures from heads of state is also curious, given the gravity of the topic. But there appears to be enough of an agreement that Mexico would immediately be put in the position of trying to implement it — subject, importantly, to “domestic and international legal obligations” — rather than engage in further negotiations.

Update: Mexico has now responded to the document, indicating there is some kind of agreement about what might be triggered in the future.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard held a news conference in which he said that the Friday agreement with the United States gave Mexico 45 days to prove that it could diminish migration without agreeing to a “safe third” deal.

He acknowledged that in 45 days, if the United States does not assess that progress has been made, the Trump administration probably will ask again for a “safe third” agreement. But he said Mexico has not committed to that agreement, which would have to be approved by lawmakers and probably negotiated with other countries in the region.

“It would be applied if we fail, and if we accept what they tell us,” Ebrard said.

Ebrard said that Vice President Pence explained in their meeting last week that a “safe third” agreement, like the one between Turkey and the European Union, would have an “immediate impact on migration.”

During much of the negotiations, Ebrard said, “it seemed like it was third safe country agreement or tariffs.”

Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, a lawyer with the Foreign Ministry, said at the news conference that if Mexico needed to continue negotiations in 45 days, it would at least have time to come up with variations on a “safe third” agreement, which it did not have last week.

“Now we have time to prepare more, to present them with better options,” Alcántara said.


Kevin Sieff contributed to this report.

Correction: This post previously misstated String’s job title. He began his new job as acting legal adviser on May 28.