U.S. Seeks to Block Migration Wave with Mexican ‘Safe Third Country’ Deal

Migrants Travel to US by Bus
Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty Images
NEIL MUNRO

U.S. officials are pressuring Mexico to sign a “safe third country” deal that would help U.S. border officers quickly deport migrants, either back into Mexico or all the way back to their home countries.

“We want to work with Mexico to align on asylum,” Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Thursday evening. “We need to be able to protect people in the first safe country they arrive in — really, all through the hemisphere, but certainly with our partner to the south.”

The terms of the deal would determine how U.S. border agencies could handle migrants who travel through Mexico to get to the U.S. border, said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge who now works with the Center for Immigration Studies. The goal would be a deal in which Mexico agrees to offer asylum to migrants from the South, and also to allow migrants to return to Mexico once they are rejected by U.S. agencies.

Depending on the deal, the rejected Central American asylum seekers might be flown home without returning to Mexico, Arthur said. Once a deal is signed, most migrants would be deterred from making the trip because they would expect rejection at the border, he said.

The safe third country deal is needed, say, advocates, because the wave of Central American economic migrants have exploited U.S. asylum rules to overwhelm the border defenses — and often to help them get work permits while they wait a few years for a judge to hear their asylum pleas.

The establishment media largely ignored the safe third country issue on Friday.

In his Friday press conference, Mexican President Andres Obrador tried to downplay the danger of President Donald Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico’s exports if Mexico does not block the central American migration. Reuters reported:

“I want to insist that we will not fall into any provocation; we are going to act prudently,” said the president. “With respect to U.S. authorities, and President Donald Trump, we think that all these conflicts in the bilateral relationship must be confronted and resolved with dialogue.”

He said that Mexico would enforce its immigration laws but would not take actions that violate human rights. He noted that people were flowing out of Central America “not by choice, but necessity” because of violence and a lack of jobs.

Obrador’s comments came after his deputies released a letter to Trump in which Obrador argued that poor migrants have a right to enter the United States.

On Friday, McAleenan also said he wants Mexico to tighten security on its southern border and to take stronger action against the drug-and-labor-trafficking cartels:

Mexico must take significant action to secure their southern border, stop the unlawful flow of migrants across their territory, and attack the criminal groups preying on vulnerable migrants and profiting from these smuggling enterprises.

[On] operational security on their southern border with Guatemala.  They have increased somewhat they interdictions of migrants entering Mexico from Guatemala, but it’s less than one fifth of what we’re seeing at the border on average.  They need to step up their security efforts at their southern border.  And they have natural chokepoints leading away from the border of Chiapas and Guatemala, into Mexico and on the way to the U.S.  

Two, we need to target an attack to transnational criminal organizations.  This is an organized smuggling effort.  The logistical effort to move 100,000 people through a country every four weeks is immense.  This is noticeable.  It involves commercial bus lines that are controlled by criminal organizations.  We need Mexico to crack down on these operations in their territory.

But McAleenan cited the safe third country goal twice:

We also have the opportunity to partner with Mexico to align our asylum efforts to ensure that asylum seekers are processed and protected in the first safe space they reach and not allowed to continue on to other countries’ borders.  We need to take concerted action.

Currently, there is no safe third country agreement, and the U.S. offers a loophole through the border fence for migrants who simultaneously bring a child and claim asylum. The loophole has drawn 100,000 migrants a month in April and in May. Congress’s support for the existing loopholes also has created a thriving business whereby migrants temporarily trade their children to adult migrants in exchange for discounts from the cartel-linked coyotes.

Pro-migration advocates are trying to block any safe third country deal with Mexico. For example, Jennifer Quiqley at Human Rights First argued Friday that Mexico is not a safe haven for migrants:

U.S. officials are already sending some asylum-seeking migrants — approximately 6,000 — back to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” program prior to their immigration hearing in the United States. The program has survived one round of lawsuits, even as pro-migration groups highlighted cases of routine crime against the migrants who are remaining in Mexico.

Multiple business groups are opposing Trump’s tariff strategy, in part, because investors gain from the continued inflow of Central American workers, consumers, and renters.

For example, Todd Schulte, the director of FWD.us, highlighted Trump’s push for a safe third country agreement: 

FWD.us was formed by West Coast investors, including Mark Zuckerberg, to help preserve the investors’ continued inflow of lower-wage H-1B visa workers, and of immigrant workers and customers.

International asylum law usually directs asylum seekers to ask for asylum in the first safe country which they enter. In theory, this rule allows the United States to reject Central American migrants who pass through Mexico without seeking asylum. 

But U.S. law requires a formal “safe third country” deal before a migrant can be sent back to the “first safe country.”

For example, a Guatemalan migrant should seek asylum in Mexico under the “first safe country” rule, but once he reaches the United States, a “safe third country” deal would allow the United States to dismiss his asylum request and send him back to Mexico or offer a return to Guatemala. 

The United States has a “safe third country” deal with Canada. The deal allows U.S. border officers to reject asylum pleas from migrants who transit Canada to reach the U.S. border. That deal has prompted little protest from pro-migration progressives. 

The same deal allows Canadian officials to reject migrants who apply for asylum at Canadian border posts. However, a loophole in the U.S.-Canadian deal requires Canadian officials to consider asylum claims from migrants who cross the border illegally from the United States. 

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