Mexico aims to avoid tariffs with potential deal limiting migrants
WASHINGTON - U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing the outlines of a deal that would dramatically increase Mexico's immigration enforcement efforts and give the United States far more latitude to deport Central Americans seeking asylum, according to a U.S. official and a Mexican official who cautioned that the accord is not finalized and that President Donald Trump might not accept it.
Faced with Trump's threat to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican goods beginning Monday, Mexican officials have pledged to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the country's border region with Guatemala, a show of force they say will make immediate reductions in the number of Central Americans heading north toward the U.S. border.
The Mexican official and the U.S. official said the countries are negotiating a sweeping plan to overhaul asylum rules across the region, a move that would require Central Americans to seek refuge in the first foreign country they enter after fleeing their homeland.
Under such a plan, the United States would swiftly deport to Mexico Guatemalan asylum seekers who set foot on U.S. soil. And the United States would send Honduran and Salvadoran asylum applicants to Guatemala, whose government held talks with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan last week. Central American migrants who express a fear of death or torture if sent back to their home countries would be interviewed by a U.S. asylum officer to determine whether the chances of such harm were more likely than not - a higher screening standard with a greater likelihood of rejection than current procedures.
Mexico has repeatedly said it will not accept the kind of "safe third country" agreement that the U.S. has with Canada, a pact that requires asylum seekers to apply for refuge in whichever country they arrive first, as each is considered safe havens. But the Mexican official said the government is willing to make asylum changes for the sake of a coordinated regional approach.
Mexican negotiators also have made clear that they will pull their offers from the table if Trump imposes the tariffs, telling the U.S. that the economic damage would undermine Mexico's ability to afford tougher enforcement.
The Mexican and U.S. officials described the accord's framework on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the international negotiations, but they expressed optimism that the deal was attainable. Officials from both countries said they did not know whether the terms would assuage Trump and alleviate the tariff threat; Trump plans to charge a 5% tariff on Mexican goods unless the country can show that it will take steps to reduce the flow of migrants streaming to the U.S. border.
The asylum modifications are likely to face challenges in U.S. courts, but legal efforts have yet to stop the Trump administration from sending thousands of Central Americans to Mexico to await their asylum hearings outside U.S. territory.
"Any change to the asylum system that does not provide the safeguards required by domestic and international laws will not survive a legal challenge," said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt.
Word of the emerging deal comes amid escalating warnings of the tariffs' potential toll. About 406,000 jobs would be eliminated if the president were to proceed with the measures, according to the Perryman Group, an economic consultancy in Waco, Texas.
Implementing the new levies will be impossible by "June 10 or even before the increase planned for July 1," the Pacific Coast Council of Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association warned in a letter to administration officials, saying it felt "grave concern, even alarm" at the prospect.
Under existing trade rules, the majority of U.S.-Mexico trade is duty free. A sudden shift to tariffs on "all" Mexican products, as Trump has threatened, would overwhelm the companies that move imports through U.S. customs checks, according to Eduardo Acosta, vice president of R.L. Jones Customhouse Brokers in San Diego.
The U.S. government last month automatically debited R.L. Jones' bank account for roughly $700,000 in duties owed by its clients. That monthly tab will swell to an estimated $19 million in June if the tariffs take effect, outstripping the firm's resources, he said.
While the tariff threat is aimed at spurring action in Mexico, significant differences remain about how quickly and by how much Mexico can reduce unauthorized migration through tougher enforcement measures, the U.S. official said. Last month, U.S. authorities made more than 144,000 arrests along the southern border, the highest level in 13 years.
Mexico has told the United States that the National Guard deployment - along with promises to build more migrant detention centers and checkpoints to catch Central Americans and deter their passage - will quickly reduce migration flows to the levels of last fall, when arrests averaged about 60,000 per month.
Trump officials have told Mexico that it is not enough, making it clear that the White House will only be satisfied with a return to the numbers tallied in the months after Trump was inaugurated, when arrests fell below 20,000, the lowest level in half a century.
The National Guard forces would not have the legal authority to arrest migrants, but they would work alongside the unarmed Mexican migration agents who have often backed down when confronted by noncompliant migrants or unruly caravan groups. The guard forces would include riot-control teams, the Mexican official said. And U.S. officials have received assurances that the additional forces would interdict the express buses smuggling groups are using to take large numbers of migrants north, adding more checkpoints along highways and rail lines.
U.S. authorities continue to push for a more forceful and intimidating enforcement approach from Mexico, while Mexico is urging the United States to address the underlying structural problems in Central America - poverty, violence and drought - that are driving emigration.
Trump gave indications Thursday that the talks had made progress, but he told reporters that he had not made up his mind.
"Something pretty dramatic could happen," he said, referring to the talks with Mexican diplomats, which continued Thursday. "We've told Mexico the tariffs go on. And I mean it, too."
Trump also dismissed Republican senators who have threatened to block his tariff plans, saying they "have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to tariffs."
Trump spoke before leaving Shannon, Ireland, for Normandy, France, where he took part in ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings that helped turn the tide of World War II.
Mexico said it will deploy 13 contingents of newly formed National Guard units that will operate like a militarized police force, with 10 groups of 450 to 600 troops assigned to the border with Guatemala. Three additional contingents will deploy to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, a geographic chokepoint, to set up roadblocks and highway checkpoints.
By September, up to 6,000 National Guard troops will be deployed in southern Mexico, up from the force of 1,500 federal police officers currently there, officials said.
"That's a remarkable and significant commitment of resources beyond what they've previously dedicated to countering human smuggling," said the U.S. official familiar with the negotiations. "It's also remarkable that they have identified the need for more detention, processing and repatriation ability, which will be necessary for any sustained effort."
The senior Mexican official said the soaring number of arrests by U.S. Customs and Border Protection - which have topped 100,000 for three months in a row - have forced the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to depart from an approach that welcomed Central Americans.
The U.S. negotiators are urging Mexico to more aggressively broadcast to migrants that their country cannot be a transit point for an unauthorized journey to the United States.
Mexican officials are looking for the Trump administration to commit to programs that will ease some of the short-term pressures in Central America that are fueling migration, especially crop failures and hunger. They at one point told Vice President Mike Pence, McAleenan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States could bring a major impact by "investing $10 million for irrigation equipment in rural Honduras."
A Trump official said Thursday that Mexican attorneys and White House lawyers were meeting to discuss the accord. The Mexican official also cautioned that the legal framework for the accord had yet to be hashed out.
On Capitol Hill, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said he would introduce a resolution of disapproval if the president were to proceed with the planned tariffs. Lawmakers could thwart Trump's import tax plan only if they can deliver a two-thirds vote, enough to override a presidential veto.
"The president's proposed tariffs would hurt American workers, businesses, and consumers. Commandeering U.S. trade policy to influence border security is an abuse of power," Neal said.
As Trump pushes ahead, business leaders and members of his own party are scrambling to head off the imposition of tariffs that would likely result in retaliatory measures by Mexico targeting U.S. farmers and manufacturers.
Through April, Mexico had been the largest U.S. trading partner. Last year, when it ranked third behind China and Canada, Mexico shipped almost $350 billion worth of autos, auto parts, industrial machinery and farm products to U.S. customers.
Businesses across the United States are scrambling to draw up contingency plans.
"We're very concerned," said Adam Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing for Trans-Matic Manufacturing in Holland, Michigan. "Businesses crave certainty. When the rules are constantly changing, we have a hard time."
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Sieff reported from Mexico City. The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.