US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Mexican leaders on Thursday to try to calm a row over President Donald Trump’s trade and immigration policies.
Trump has outraged Mexico by vowing to build a wall along the border to keep out migrants, whom he branded rapists and criminals during his presidential campaign.
His government on Tuesday issued new orders to the authorities to begin arresting and deporting illegal immigrants, many of them Mexicans.
Trump has also threatened to put up barriers to Mexican exports, shift jobs from that country back to the United States and even halt remittances by US-based Mexicans back to their families.
Now he has sent Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to Mexico City to smooth over tensions — and discuss with Mexican Enrique Pena Nieto how to curb cross-border migration and drug-trafficking.
“It’s significant that the president is sending the secretaries to Mexico so early in the administration. It’s symbolic of the meaningful relationship that our two nations have,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Wednesday.
“These are important meetings regarding the president’s agenda to improve the quality of lives for both people of Mexico and the United States by combating drug traffickers and finding ways to bolster both our economies through a broader relationship that promotes commerce and legal immigration.”
Tillerson and Kelly were scheduled to meet with Pena Nieto at 1900 GMT after talks with Mexico’s ministers of foreign affairs, finance and government.
Trump’s stance on Mexico has driven the countries’ relations to their lowest point in years.
Pena Nieto canceled a planned meeting with Trump in Washington last month over the US leader’s vow to make Mexico pay for the wall.
US government officials said Tillerson and Kelly will aim to convince Mexico that it values their bilateral ties.
Spicer insisted Mexico and Washington have “a very healthy and robust relationship with the Mexican government.”
But Maureen Meyer, an expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a US human rights advocacy organization, said “relations have been severely strained by the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions.”
“Secretary Tillerson has an opportunity to set relations on a more sound footing based on mutual respect,” she said in a statement.
The US immigration authorities have arrested hundreds of people across the country as part of Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Kelly on Tuesday issued new orders to step up the detentions.
Speaking in Guatemala on Wednesday before traveling to Mexico, Kelly said “my sincere advice to any citizen considering moving to the United States in crossing our boundaries irregularly — migration — my best advice is to not do it.”
Mexico has hinted it could use border cooperation as a bargaining chip.
“We have been a great ally to fight problems with migration, narcotics,” Mexico’s Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo told the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.
“If at some point in time things become so badly managed in the relationship, the incentives for the Mexican people to keep on cooperating in things that are at the heart of (US) national security issues will be diminished.”
But Mexico has a lot to lose: it relies on the United States as a trading partner, sending 80 percent of its exports to its northern neighbor.
The United States has meanwhile allocated $2.6 billion worth of aid to Mexico for fighting crime under the 2008 “Merida initiative,” US officials say.
Vowing to protect US industry, Trump has called for a renegotiation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Pena Nieto has promised to defend Mexico’s interests and called for respect from the United States.
“Neither confrontation nor submission: the solution is dialogue and negotiation,” he said last month.
“Mexico does not believe in walls. Our country believes in bridges.”