Mexico Made Refugee Concessions Months Before Trump Tariff Threats, DHS Documents Say

Bit by bit, Trump’s story of bullying Mexico into concessions on asylum-seekers is falling apart.

Migrants are pictured waiting to be taken to a processing facility near the Paso Del Norte International Bridge in Downtown El Paso, Texas on May 31, 2019. - The border area is bracing for the impact of what may happen after Trump unexpectedly announced his readiness to levy tariffs on all Mexican imports, beginning at five percent starting June 10 and rising monthly to as high as 25 percent until Mexico substantially reduces the flow of illegal immigration. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants wait to be taken to a processing facility near the Paso Del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, Texas, on May 31, 2019. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Bit by bit, President Donald Trump’s story of winning concessions on immigration enforcement from Mexico is falling apart. Last weekend, Trump announced that the U.S. and Mexico “reached a signed agreement” to stem the flow of mostly Central American migrants entering the U.S. through its southern border — the fruits, the administration suggested, of his threats to impose tariffs against the U.S.’s southern neighbor.

That version of events was called into question by the New York Times, which reported that Mexico was already carrying out or had been planning to carry out the actions that the administration claimed were part of a deal. Trump responded by insisting that there were “secret” provisions. On Wednesday, he waved a purported secret deal with Mexico in front of reporters. One photojournalist captured a partially legible backlit image, revealing that the paper described “a regional approach to burden-sharing in relation to the processing of refugee status claims to migrants.”

“Mexico informally allowed for a third-country refugee resettlement process to begin; however, Mexico has not wanted to [be] open or public about it.”

Documents obtained by The Intercept suggest that this part of Trump’s deal also already existed before his tariff grandstanding. The documents affirm that an agreement has been in the works for months — with Mexico acquiescing to do more to process refugees on its soil since at least October 2018.

“Mexico informally allowed for a third-country refugee resettlement process to begin; however, Mexico has not wanted to open or public about it [sic],” according to the documents, a briefing backgrounder and talking points prepared for then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for a November 1 meeting with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Third-country resettlement is the transfer of a refugee from one country of asylum to another that has agreed to take them. Worldwide, in 2018, the UNHCR resettled nearly 60,000 people, mostly Syrian and Congolese refugees. No such broad agreement yet exists to transfer people within the Americas.

The documents, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, also lay out the U.S. government’s priorities around the migrant caravans of northbound Central Americans. Some of the details about U.S. immigration policy and DHS’s coordination with both Mexico and the UNHCR have never been published. DHS did not respond to requests for comment about the documents.

For instance, Mexico was considering “granting all caravan members asylum as a group instead of individual reviewing their claims [sic],” according to the documents. DHS argued that such a policy might create a “pull factor” that attracts migrants and set an “unsustainable precedent,” although the documents conceded that Mexico “can set its own asylum policy just like the United States does.”

The documents obtained by The Intercept lay out a piece of an ongoing process by the Trump administration to stop migrant caravans and other asylum-seekers from trying to enter the U.S. through Mexico. The caravans attracted Trump’s ire; the administration cracked down on the migrants at the border, firing tear gas at crowds that included children, and attempting, through various policy changes, to limit the options for people hoping to apply for asylum.

The prep notes for Nielsen’s meeting add more color to the frenzied kitchen-sink approach the U.S. government is taking to stop migrants and asylum-seekers with often contradictory actions. They show the United States encouraging what would likely be an expensive third-country resettlement program at the same time that it was threatening to cut aid funding to Central America (the cuts were formally made this April) and attempting to create or revive programs similar to ones that the administration had canceled.

Trump has presented his Mexico deal to stem the migrant flows as a major victory of his tough approach to not only immigrants themselves, but also the foreign nations he holds responsible for allowing the migrants through to the U.S. A more careful look at the crisis and these governments’ responses to it, however, reveal a complex web of national and international policies and dealmaking in which the Trump administration has won some concessions, but not in the triumphant manner it claims.

The U.S. has repeatedly pushed Mexico to sign an official safe third-country agreement, which would force asylum-seekers who transit through Mexico to apply for protection there, but Mexico has refused to make such an agreement, according to an official with the Mexican foreign ministry. (The official requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, and noted that they couldn’t comment on specific policy proposals that were considered before the new Mexican administration took office last December.) The official added that Mexico has repeatedly and publicly opposed the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, under which would-be asylees in the U.S. have to remain in Mexico as their claims are processed.

Some limited-capacity refugee resettlement programs for Central Americans already exist, one of which is ongoing: the Protection Transfer Agreement, an often overlooked initiative in El Salvador and Honduras that permits asylum-seekers to apply for protection within the country they intend to flee. In three years of work, the PTA has only resettled just over 300 people. In 2017, the Trump administration canceled another resettlement program, the Central American Minors program, which permitted youth from the region to apply for protected status in the U.S. from their home countries.

As the documents make clear, any resettlement program that would send refugees to the U.S. would be limited by the regional annual ceiling of 3,000 people. In other words, the U.S., even in discussing the expansion of third-country resettlement programs, is looking to foist responsibility for refugees, and their processing, onto Mexico and other countries. This week, Voice of America obtained a draft of an alleged safe third-country agreement between the U.S. and Guatemala. The draft agreement would require all Salvadorans and Hondurans seeking asylum to do so in Guatemala, before reaching Mexico’s southern border. U.S. officials are reportedly in talks with counterparts in Guatemala in an attempt to sign a deal quickly; Guatemala, meanwhile, faces contentious presidential elections on Sunday. With a nearly 60 percent poverty rate, an entrenched problem with corruption and violence, as well as an emigration trend of its own, the country hardly seems fit to process and welcome tens of thousands of fleeing Hondurans and Guatemalans. In 2017 and 2018 alone, nearly 50,000 Guatemalans applied for asylum in the U.S. Many more fled to Mexico or migrated to the U.S. without making an asylum claim.

“It’s simply ludicrous for the United States to assert that Guatemala is capable of protecting refugees turned away from the United States at a time when its own citizens are fleeing violence and other failures of state protection,” Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First said in a statement in response to the reports.

US President Donald Trump holds piece of paper saying its his deal with Mexico as he speaks with reporters at the White House, in Washington, DC, on June 11, 2019. - Trump did not show the paper to reporters.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a piece of paper, stating that it is a purported secret deal with Mexico, as he speaks with press at the White House on June 11, 2019.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The DHS talking points offer a window into U.S. dealmaking in the region with Mexico and with UNHCR, which oversees international refugee resettlement for the world body. A UNHCR official, speaking to The Intercept on condition of anonymity as they were not permitted to speak to the press, confirmed that the meeting between Nielsen and Grandi took place, and that they discussed third-country refugee resettlement. UNHCR and Mexican officials both said that there have been no advances in discussion about third-country resettlement since — though the document itself referred to the Mexican efforts to keep any such agreements secret.

In the briefing papers, DHS officials preparing the memos urged Nielsen to encourage UNHCR to begin gathering biometric data on migrants passing through Mexico and to “uncover any nefarious actors” and share that information with the United States. The UNHCR official, speaking on background, denied that the organization would gather such information from asylum-seekers, unless they were hoping to remain in Mexico and emphasized that they would not share that information with a third party, the U.S. The Mexican official concurred. The memo notes, however, that from October 18 to 23, DHS received from an unknown source the biometric data on 153 members of a migrant caravan with unspecified criminal convictions. As The Intercept reported earlier this year, the U.S., in cooperation with Mexican security agencies, surveilled, harassed, and detained organizers of the caravan, as well as journalists who were covering it.

Trump claims that he intimidated Mexico into giving something “the U.S. has been asking about getting for many years.” But Mexico has been ramping up its immigration enforcement efforts since at least 2014, when the Obama administration pushed it to stop northward trans-Mexico migration in response to a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.’s southern border. Last year, Mexico reluctantly agreed to a new series of measures, including the Migrant Protection Protocols. Mexico only agreed to the MPP “for humanitarian reasons,” the official told The Intercept. Expanding the program was part of the announced “agreement” made before the June 10 tariff deadline, along with Mexico’s deployment of troops to its border.

Defending the effectiveness of the tariff threat, Trump insisted that part of the deal remained “secret.” “It was all done because of the tariffs,” he said. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, pushed back in a letter and a series of press conferences, insisting that there was no secret agreement.

The third-country refugee resettlement accord would be a major and long sought-after change to asylum processing in the region. A former DHS official, who asked for anonymity to speak about their past employment, confirmed that a regional resettlement program was under discussion in Mexico as of late 2018.

According to the briefing papers obtained by The Intercept, Canada and Australia had been contacted by DHS and “were open to” serving as the final destination for successful Central American refugee and asylee applicants who filed from Mexico, if UNHCR also signed on. Costa Rica and Uruguay may eventually accept applicants too. (Requests for comment to the embassies of Canada, Australia, Costa Rica, and Uruguay were not immediately answered.)

Central American migrants heading in caravan to the US rest at the park Hidalgo in Tapachula in Mexico on April 12, 2019. - A group of 350 Central American migrants forced their way into Mexico Friday, authorities said, as a new caravan of around 2,500 people arrived -- news sure to draw the attention of US President Donald Trump. Mexico's National Migration Institute said some members of the caravan had a "hostile attitude" and had attacked local police in the southern town of Metapa de Dominguez after crossing the border from Guatemala.

A group of Central American migrants, heading to the U.S. in a caravan, rest in Tapachula, Mexico, on April 12, 2019.

Photo: Pep Companys/AFP/Getty Images

The possibility, urged throughout the DHS documents, of people resettling in Mexico, overlooks the fact that many of them are still in danger and in need of protection within Mexico.

“Mexico is not a safe country for asylum-seekers.”

Daniella Burgi-Palomino, senior associate of the Latin American Working Group, told The Intercept, “Mexico is not a safe country for asylum-seekers.” Burgi-Palomino described a Mexican asylum system in disarray, propped up by the UNHCR but with funding having been cut by the current Mexican administration, under new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO. He took office promising greater respect for migrants in Mexico and initially extended one-year humanitarian visas to around 15,000 people. That program was canceled early this year, with Mexico’s top immigration official, Tonatiuh Guillén López, calling it “too successful.” At the same time, Mexico’s budget for their refugee and asylum offices was slashed by 19 percent between 2018 and 2019.

“Our idea is not to build another wall,” the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told The Intercept. But violence and abuses against migrants in southern Mexico seems largely unchecked. Burgi-Palomino said that during a visit to southern Mexico, national guard troops recently deployed there were confused about their mission and seemed to be serving little purpose; she compared them to the bored National Guard troops deployed to the border in the U.S.

In the end, the tariff threat seems to be an ineffectual political stunt, achieving little but startling global markets and bringing attention back on the Trump administration’s polestar: inciting panic about immigration. There are no signs that Mexico agreed to anything novel in this new round of discussions. And even if the U.S. eventually forces Mexico’s hand, or Guatemala’s, and more migrants and asylum-seekers find themselves unable to reach the U.S., the achievement will be little more than an outsourcing — rather than the elimination — of violence.

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