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After inauguration, Mexico’s new government heads to Washington for migration talks

A migrant woman makes coffee over a campfire inside the Benito Juarez sports complex in Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday.
A migrant woman makes coffee over a campfire inside the Benito Juarez sports complex in Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
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The Trump administration is pushing to finalize an agreement with Mexico’s new government in the coming days that would make asylum seekers wait outside the United States while their claims are processed, but officials from both countries caution that key provisions of the plan, known as Remain in Mexico, have yet to be settled.

Following Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony for president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, top members of his cabinet will travel to Washington, where they will discuss the matter Sunday and Monday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

The two governments have tentatively agreed to the deal’s broad outlines , but it has yet to be formalized . Trump administration officials engaged in the talks say they are cautiously optimistic they can seal the agreement, while recognizing the López Obrador administration may need more time.

“The new Mexican government is continuing to negotiate at the same time that they’re taking office and putting their administration together, so they have a lot going on,” said one senior U.S. official involved in the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity because negotiations remain sensitive.

Deal with Mexico paves way for asylum overhaul at U.S. border

Conditions in Tijuana, where most of the 8,000 Central Americans have arrived after traveling thousands of miles in caravan groups, have turned more desperate in recent days. Mexico’s incoming administration and U.S. officials say that, following Sunday’s confrontation at the border, they are worried about the possibility of more unrest, particularly if militant members of the caravan seek to test the new government’s willingness to use force to keep them away from the border fence.

Top aides to López Obrador this week publicly acknowledged that they are preparing to host thousands of Central Americans while they await a chance to seek refuge in the United States. And U.S. asylum officers are prepared to implement the Remain in Mexico plan as soon as the deal is finalized, according to internal memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Those aides to López Obrador have kept Trump administration officials off balance in the past week by alternately praising the agreement and denying they have one. They say they have 100,000 jobs available for Central Americans willing to work in factories along Mexico’s northern border as well as on infrastructure projects in the country’s impoverished southern states, describing the plan as a building block to a broader partnership with the Trump administration.

“(Remain) in Mexico is just that,” incoming interior minister Olga Sanchez Cordero said last week in an interview. “To be in Mexico because we give you work, because we want you to integrate into our population, because we speak the same language, because we want you to be here.”

The medium- and long-term goal of the López Obrador government is to foment development in Central America by pouring in investment and generating jobs so people don’t have to leave their homes , Sanchez Cordero said.

“We want the United States to accompany us,” she said.

Incoming Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said this week his government wants a “Marshall Plan” for Central America, referring to the ambitious and costly U.S. effort to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II.

Asked by reporters how much the United States should commit to such a plan, Ebrard proffered $20 billion as a reasonable target.

“Mexico by itself is going to invest in our own territory during the next administration, more than $20 billion, and so any serious effort regarding our brothers in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala should be for a similar amount,” Ebrard said.

Trump administration officials have said privately they are prepared to commit significant resources to an agreement that keeps Central American asylum seekers on Mexican soil because such a deal would save millions of dollars in detention and enforcement costs.

But $20 billion would dwarf what Washington currently spends on security and development aid for the region.

“The incoming government is right to engage under the tenet of shared responsibility with the United States and to push for a holistic strategy,” said Arturo Sarukhan, who was Mexico’s ambassador in Washington from 2007 to 2013.

“But it needs to be clear-eyed as it enters these negotiations. Enunciating the goal of billions of dollars in aid, given the current political landscape in Washington, is not only Panglossian, it could artificially tee up an unattainable benchmark, which leads to failure,” Sarukhan said, referencing the delusional optimist of Voltaire’s “Candide.”

Homeland Security officials have long sought a deal with Mexico that would obligate Central Americans who reach Mexican territory to seek asylum there. Asylum claims at the U.S. border have quadrupled since 2014, leaving the U.S. immigration court system at a breaking point, with a backlog exceeding 750,000 cases and court calendars booked years in advance.

DHS asks Pentagon to extend troop deployment at the border

Mexican authorities have ruled out one such arrangement, known as a “Safe Third Country” agreement, but Sanchez Cordero and other senior members of López Obrador’s team said they view Remain in Mexico as a more appealing alternative — as long as it’s a temporary one.

Eric Olson, a consultant to the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said he thinks the incoming government is looking for a deal that will mark a clear break with the “punitive, law-enforcement-only approach.”

President Trump’s tweets that described the Remain in Mexico plan as something he was willing to impose — at the threat of closing the border — have also left the incoming government little room to maneuver.

“They want to define their own policy, not only as a reaction to or negotiation with the U.S., but independently, on their own terms,” Olson said.

Another Mexican adviser to the transition team said that “we’re already in a risky place.” “When Trump talks about cooperation, he reduces it to Mexico having to arrest migrants, or else. When [López Obrador] talks about cooperation, he wants to stop emigration with development.”

U.S. officials believe the Remain in Mexico plan is their best shot at getting migrants to stop leaving Central America in such large numbers, knowing they will not be able to easily cross the U.S. border and get released from custody while awaiting a faraway court date.

After Pompeo met with Ebrard in Houston on Nov. 15 to hammer out the deal, the tear-gas clash at the San Diego border has given new urgency to questions about how to deal with migrant caravans and those waiting for asylum.

For now, Mexican authorities have dealt with some 6,000 members of the caravan by moving them from a flooded sports complex near the U.S. border to a former concert venue about 11 miles away.

Mexico begins moving caravan migrants to new shelter

López Obrador takes office Saturday in a Mexico City ceremony that will be attended by leaders from several Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, as well as Vice President Pence, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, and Nielsen.

The Remain in Mexico plan, if implemented, would upend the way U.S. authorities process asylums requests at the border. Instead of allowing applicants to live and work in the United States while they await a hearing with an immigration judge, asylum seekers would have to stay in Mexico for months or years until their cases are decided.

At the U.S. border crossing in San Ysidro, U.S. border officials are currently accepting 60 to 100 asylum seekers per day, from a list with more than 5,000 names.

DHS officials say they will process at least twice as many under the Remain in Mexico plan, because they would not longer have to find detention space for those taken into custody.

Partlow reported from Mexico City.