Mexico has indicated it would not accept the Trump administration’s new US immigration proposals, saying it would go to the United Nations to defend the rights of immigrants in the US.
Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister, was responding to Donald Trump’s plans to enforce immigration rules more vigorously against undocumented migrants, which could lead to mass deportations to Mexico, not just of Mexicans but also citizens of other Latin American countries.
“We are not going to accept it because we don’t have to accept it,” Videgaray said, according to the Reforma newspaper. “I want to make clear, in the most emphatic way, that the government of Mexico and the Mexican people do not have to accept measures that one government wants to unilaterally impose on another.”
The sweeping measures were announced in Washington on the eve of a visit to Mexico by the US secretaries of state and homeland security that had been aimed at salvaging bilateral relations, currently at their lowest point in at least three decades.
Rex Tillerson and John Kelly are seeking to soothe Mexican fears in the wake of Trump’s new executive orders, the construction of a border wall that he insists Mexico be made to pay for, and his threat to unpick the 1994 Nafta free trade agreement that underpins the Mexican economy.
On Thursday, the two men, a former oil executive and a retired general, will meet the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who abruptly cancelled a trip to Washington at the end of January after Trump sent out a tweet suggesting it was better not to come “if Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall”.
Since then, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and closest foreign policy adviser, has reportedly worked behind the scenes to limit the damage, helping broker a placatory phone conversation between the presidents on 27 January, and attending a meeting on 8 February in Washington between Tillerson and his Mexican counterpart, Videgaray, according to the Washington Post.
Kushner and Videgaray, who is Peña Nieto’s closest political adviser, were introduced by mutual friends in the business world, and their personal relationship has helped prevent an escalating war of words between the two capitals, diplomats said.
Videgaray has placed high stakes on the visit. “This is a moment of definition: the decisions we make in the coming months will determine how Mexico and the United States coexist for the next decades,” he was quoted as saying at the G20 meeting in Bonn last week by the Los Angeles Times.
But Mexican observers worry that the relationship with Kushner, who is 36 years old and has no previous foreign policy experience, is a thin reed on which to try to rebuild a profoundly damaged bilateral relationship.
“I don’t know if there is a strategy and if there is a strategy, the strategy is a person,” said Carlos Heredia, professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City.
The US state department referred questions about Kushner’s role to the White House, which did not respond.
“This is indeed a low point in US-Mexico relations, representing an abrupt break from the last 30-plus years of cooperation,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a book on US-Mexican relations. “While the visit will go some way to smoothing bilateral discussions, there is a hard-earned trust that has been broken, and that can’t be repaired with just a high-level visit.”
O’Neil added: “The Trump administration’s hostile beginning has also shifted Mexico’s domestic politics. Rising nationalism there will make compromises with the United States all the harder as Mexico looks toward its own 2018 presidential race.”
Senior US administration officials said Tillerson and Kelly, who were due to have dinner with the Mexican foreign and defence ministers on Wednesday evening, would emphasise areas of longstanding cooperation between the two countries, over counter-narcotics, securing Mexico’s southern border, and counter-terrorism, which were all cultivated under previous US administrations. One diplomat called the strategy “don’t mention the wall”.
Asked about the disagreement, a senior US administration official said the two presidents had acknowledged “clear differences on the payment issue” but had also agreed to “work these differences out as part of a comprehensive discussion”.
“The wall is just one part of a broader relationship that we have,” the official said.
“On security, we expect to address ways in which we can improve our cooperation in combating heroin production and trafficking, including eradication, targeting criminal organizations, extradition, and arms and bulk cash trafficking.”
US officials say they also want to deepen existing cooperation with Mexico on beefing up security on Mexico’s southern border and promote joint development programmes in Central American countries to reduce violence and strengthen governments, with aim of reducing northward migration.
Tens of thousands of migrants – mostly from Central America, but increasingly from further afield – transit Mexico annually in attempts to reach the US border. Mexico has turned enforcer, imposing the Southern Border Plan in 2014 to detain and deport migrants transiting Mexican territory, even as it doggedly defends its own nationals at risk of deportation in the United States.
In recent interviews, the economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, has raised the possibility of Mexico suspending cooperation on migrant enforcement. He told the news channel Milenio: “There would be no incentive to continue collaborating on important issues for North American security such as migration issues” if Nafta were abandoned.
Brandon Capece, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, said the state of bilateral relations was at its lowest point since the 1980s, when the two countries were locked in ideological differences over foreign policy and before the signing of Nafta in 1994 made them economic partners, with more than $1.5bn in trade crossing the border each day.
“Even renegotiating Nafta is something that can be mutually beneficial for all three nations involved, but only if Trump can move beyond his misperceived notion that the United States is somehow the victim in this relationship,” Capece said. “That being said, given the failure of the Trump administration to articulate a clear foreign policy and their reluctance to rely on experts within the Washington foreign policy establishment, it is unlikely that this trip in and of itself will calm nerves in either Washington or Mexico City.”