There were promises of cooperation, of closer economic ties, and frequent odes to the enduring partnership between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. But there were no public mentions of that massive border wall or President Donald Trump’s plan to deport non-Mexicans to Mexico as top U.S. officials visited the Mexican capital.
Instead, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played it safe, acknowledging generally that the U.S. and Mexico are in a period of disagreement without putting any specific dispute under the microscope. It fell to their hosts, and especially Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray, to thrust those issues into the spotlight.
“It is an evident fact that Mexicans feel concern and irritation over what are perceived as policies that may hurt Mexicans and the national interest of Mexicans here and abroad,” Videgaray said Thursday after meeting with Kelly and Tillerson.
The U.S. officials focused instead on putting to rest some of the fears reverberating across Latin America — such as the notion that the U.S. military might be enlisted to deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally en masse. Not so, said Kelly. He said there would be “no mass deportations” and no U.S. military role.
“In a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences,” added Tillerson. “We listened closely and carefully to each other as we respectfully and patiently raised our respective concerns.”
Yet those assurances rang hollow for many Mexicans, including those who said they are being deported for things like traffic tickets.
“They were waiting for me outside,” said Lucio Cervantes Campos, who was detained in Portland, Oregon, as he came out of court after paying a ticket. Cervantes Campos was one of about five dozen deported Mexican migrants who arrived on a flight Thursday from the United States.
To be sure, millions of people were deported under President Barack Obama, under the same laws Trump now is relying on. But Trump’s planned crackdown has created significant concerns for countries like Mexico that appeared no closer to being resolved as Tillerson and Kelly returned to Washington.
Only hours before Kelly vowed “no use of military forces,” Trump suggested the opposite.
“It’s a military operation,” Trump said at the White House. He boasted that the U.S. was “getting really bad dudes out of this country at a rate nobody has ever seen before.”
The Homeland Security Department didn’t respond to requests to clarify why Trump and Kelly were making conflicting claims. At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump hadn’t been speaking literally. He said Trump used the “military operation” phrase “as an adjective” to describe the precision with which immigration enforcement was being carried out.
The divergent tones from Trump and from his Cabinet officials left Mexico with an uncomfortable decision about whom to believe. Throughout Trump’s first weeks, foreign leaders have grown increasingly skeptical as Trump’s envoys deliver soothing messages that are then negated by the president.
A new approach unveiled this week prioritizes deportation for anyone charged or convicted of any crime, rather than just serious crimes. That potentially subjects many more to deportation, many Mexicans included. Mexico was particularly incensed that the U.S. announced — without Mexico’s sign-off — that people caught crossing the border illegally will be sent back to Mexico — even those from third countries who have no connection to Mexico.
Those policies have stoked fears about the possibility of deportee and refugee camps emerging along Mexico’s northern border. Mexican officials were also apprehensive that a forthcoming report ordered by Trump’s administration listing all current U.S. aid to Mexico is intended to threaten Mexico into compliance over immigration or the wall.
Still, Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong was cautious in his disapproval. He said he’d stressed to the U.S. that any immigration steps “should be discussed and to the extent possible, subject to consensus.”
“We have expressed our concern about a possible increase in deportations and the possibility that citizens of other countries may be returned to our territory, until their legal situation is resolved,” Osorio Chong said.
Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope said Osorio Chong’s reaction may have been part of Mexico’s traditionally cautious, soft-spoken diplomacy.
“It could be one of those displays of courtesy that these people use” in government relations, Hope said.
Tillerson and Kelly also met behind closed doors with President Enrique Peña Nieto before returning to Washington. Peña Nieto recently canceled a trip to Washington over Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for the wall. It has not been rescheduled.
Mexico has also raised concerns about Trump’s pledge to overhaul the trade relationship and possibly apply steep taxes to Mexican products, a move with profound impacts for Mexico’s export-heavy economy. Tillerson said the leaders had agreed the trade relationship needed to be modernized and strengthened.