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The U.S. Is Using the Tariff Threat to Push Mexico to Accept Most Asylum Seekers

The Trump team is working on a "safe third country" agreement with Mexico, which would make migrants who travel through Mexico ineligible for asylum in the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin speak with then-President-elect of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July of 2018.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin speak with then-President-elect of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July of 2018.

Reports on talks between Trump administration officials and the Mexican government, following the president's threat of imposing tariffs unless Mexico slows migration, indicate that Mexico might acquiesce to a "safe third country" agreement with the United States. Such an agreement would mean that any asylum seeker who first passes through Mexico before arriving in the U.S. would be essentially ineligible for asylum in the states.

The U.S. currently has a safe third country agreement with Canada. The idea is that asylum seekers who arrive in Canada should apply for asylum in that country instead of the U.S., as Canada is as safe for refugees as its southern neighbor is.

The Trump administration has long pushed for a similar sort of agreement with Mexico, but the Mexican government has strongly resisted such a deal, as it would make the country responsible for the near entirety of the hundreds of thousands of Central American asylum seekers who pass though its borders every year.

Human rights advocates warn that the rationale behind a safe third country agreement—that asylum seekers would be secure and would not be persecuted in the other country—would be a farce in the Mexican context.

"Mexico is not a safe third country for asylum seekers," Kennji Kizuka, a human rights attorney and researcher at the advocacy organization Human Rights First, told me in February, in response to early reports that the Trump administration was pursuing a safe third country deal with Mexico.

Kizuka explained what's required, under both U.S. and international law, to warrant sending asylum seekers back into another contiguous country: "You have to have an agreement, the country has to have a fair asylum system, and the country has to be safe—[asylum seekers] shouldn't be at risk of persecution there," Kizuka said. "Mexico does not have a good record on human rights, and its adjudication of asylum claims just isn't where it needs to be to make sure people are safe."

The agency that handles refugee claims in Mexico is small and deeply overwhelmed. Unable to process the high number of asylum claims, largely from Central Americans, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance has turned to the United Nations for assistance.

Kizuka's organization—and others like Medicin Sans Frontieres and the Women's Refugee Commission—have completed research projects analyzing the conditions asylum seekers experience in Mexico. The reports have found that many of the kinds of persecution asylum seekers flee in other countries—gender-based violence, deadly homophobia and transphobia, gang extortion, and slavery—are prevalent in Mexico. Human Rights First has also detailed how Mexico's asylum system is rife with inadequacies, and asylum seekers and refugees in Mexico are at risk of of being refouled (returned to countries where they could die).

Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, indicated to the Washington Post on Thursday that a potential safe third country agreement between the U.S. and Mexico could face legal challenge.

"Any change to the asylum system that does not provide the safeguards required by domestic and international laws will not survive a legal challenge," Gelernt said.