Border row pitches Mexican president into deep water with Trump

The border fence between Mexico and the United States is pictured from Tijuana, Mexico March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s threat to shut the U.S. border if Mexico does not halt all illegal immigration has exposed the limitations of the new Mexican government’s strategy of trying to appease the U.S. president as he gears up for re-election.

Amid a surge in migrant detentions at the southwest U.S. border, Trump on Friday said he would close the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) frontier, or sections of it, during the coming week if Mexico did not halt the flow of people.

Casting the government under leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the villain in his struggle to curb illegal immigration to the United States, Trump returned to a signature theme of his 2015-2016 presidential election bid.

His words were a slap in the face to Lopez Obrador, who has refused to answer back to provocative comments from Trump. Instead, the Mexican leader has worked to cement his power base by combating poverty with welfare handouts and lambasting his predecessors as corrupt.

On Friday, Lopez Obrador again said he would not quarrel with Trump, invoking “love and peace” and repeating his commitment to curbing migration.

However, for former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, Mexico faces “incredibly damaging” consequences if Trump does order “go-slows” at the border, which would pitch Lopez Obrador into uncomfortable new territory.

“He’s totally unfamiliar with international affairs. He’d prefer not to have to worry about these things,” Castaneda said, noting that the U.S. president had tested many governments. “Nobody’s been able to find a way to manage Trump. It’s a mess.”

Staunchly non-interventionist in international affairs, Lopez Obrador shows little interest in diplomacy. He has often said “the best foreign policy is domestic policy.”

But as the destination of 80 percent of Mexico’s exports and workplace of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, the United States offers Trump plenty of leverage to apply pressure via the border.

Policy experts say Trump’s demand is not realistic and that Mexican authorities are already stretched.

Still, Mexico has signaled it will redouble efforts to contain migration, which stems largely from three poor, violent Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he did not believe Trump was demanding an outright stop to the migrant flow, which has run into the millions over the past decade.

“What can be done is to improve work on registering and regulating (migration),” Ebrard told Reuters. “They’re asking us to put into effect what we said we would do.”

The government has vowed to curb migration by addressing the root causes, keeping better tabs on the people entering Mexico and adopting a more humane approach to the phenomenon.

In exchange, Lopez Obrador has sought to enlist Trump’s aid in tackling the problems of Central America, which critics say has been scarred by a history of messy U.S. interventions.

On Thursday, Lopez Obrador said migration was chiefly a matter for Washington and the troubled region, reflecting the view that Mexico cannot help being sandwiched between the struggling countries and the richest nation on the planet.

Instead, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday it was cutting off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, raising questions about Trump’s commitment to helping there.

Soaring border arrests have rankled with the U.S. president.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol projections are for over 90,000 apprehensions to be logged during March, according to data provided to the Mexican government. That is up more than 140 percent from March 2018, and a seven-fold jump from 2017. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2V59n2R)

At the same time, Lopez Obrador is sending fewer migrants back home. In December-February, the administration’s first three months, the number dropped 17 percent from a year earlier to 19,360, data from the National Migration Institute show.

The fall partly reflects the government’s decision to issue humanitarian visas to encourage Central Americans to stay in Mexico. The visas proved so popular that the government had to suspend them, officials say.

Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador’s savings drive to pay for his social programs has cut the budget of the National Migration Institute by more than a fifth this year.

‘LIFE AND DEATH’

The clash illustrates Lopez Obrador’s miscalculation in thinking he could contain Trump’s hostility toward Mexico with U.S. presidential elections in 2020, said Agustin Barrios Gomez, a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations.

Tension was inevitable given that Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration is “immediately antagonistic” to Lopez Obrador’s core constituency: poorer Mexicans who often seek to better their lot in the United States, he argued.

Yet by agreeing in December to accept Central American asylum seekers while their claims are processed in the United States, Lopez Obrador gave the impression he could be “pushed around” by Trump, said former foreign minister Castaneda, who backed Lopez Obrador’s closest rival in the last election.

To keep the border open, Mexican business leaders say they are leaning on U.S. partners to pressure Congress.

A shutdown would be “very negative for both countries,” said deputy Mexican economy minister Luz Maria de la Mora, who saw Trump’s comments as part of his election campaign.

“I think the U.S. administration and the advisers in the White House know it’s not a good idea,” she told Reuters.

But if push came to shove, Mexico would suffer most, said Castaneda.

“The Americans have a much greater capacity … to outlast the Mexicans,” he said. “For Mexicans it’s a life or death issue. For Americans it’s a pain in the ass, but that’s it.”

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Delphine Schrank and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. border agents redeployed to handle migrant humanitarian needs

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Central America are seen escorted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials after crossing the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this pictured taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez

(Reuters) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will pull around 750 officers off ports of entry and redeploy them to process record numbers of migrant families entering the United States at the Mexico border, the head of the agency said on Wednesday.

The agency is also redirecting service personnel and expanding food, transportation and medical contracts to meet migrants’ humanitarian needs while maintaining border security, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas.

“There will be impacts to traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade,” he said.

March is on track for the highest number of monthly border crossings in over a decade, with more than 100,000 apprehensions and encounters of people deemed inadmissible at U.S. ports of entry, McAleenan said.

Apprehensions and encounters of families were expected to reach over 55,000 people in March, McAleenan said, the highest level for any month on record, according to CBP data.

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

McAleenan said up to 40 percent of CBP personnel in sectors like El Paso were now working to care for migrants’ humanitarian needs. Smugglers are using the distraction of large groups of asylum seekers to traffic drugs and migrants seeking to evade capture, he said.

For the first time in over a decade, CBP is directly releasing migrants into the United States when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unable to provide bed space to relieve overcrowding, McAleenan said.

“We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility,” said McAleenan. “With these numbers, with the types of illnesses we’re seeing at the border, I fear that it’s just a matter of time.”

Border Patrol agents on Monday located a two-year-old Honduran child near Quemado, Texas, who appeared to be suffering from seizures and convulsions. The child was taken to the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for more advanced care, the agency said in a statement.

The hospital declined to comment on the child’s condition, due to patient privacy. Border Patrol officials were not immediately available to comment.

Two Guatemalan minors died while in U.S. Border Patrol custody in December.

The president has taken aim at the asylum system and earlier this year began sending a small number of migrants back to Mexican border towns to wait out their U.S. hearings.

As of March 26, around 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico under the program, according to a Mexican immigration official.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in San Antonio; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Leslie Adler and Rosalba O’Brien)

Judge to weigh new rules as U.S. works to reunite migrant families

Children are escorted to the Cayuga Center, which provides foster care and other services to immigrant children separated from their families, in New York City, U.S., July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Friday will consider imposing tougher rules on the U.S. government to ensure it reunites as many as 2,000 immigrant children with their parents by July 26.

In a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government in June to reunite families that had been separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. The government failed to meet a Tuesday deadline for reuniting an initial group of children under 5.

About 46 of the 103 children remain separated because of safety concerns, the deportation of their parents and other issues, according to court documents.

The government has said its efforts to reunite families were slowed by the need to conduct DNA testing and criminal background checks on parents and determine if they would provide a safe environment for the child.

That has raised questions how the government will manage with the vastly larger number of children it still must reunite, a task the judge has called a “significant undertaking.”

Late Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit that led to Sabraw’s order, said it wanted the judge to impose timelines on the government for background checks and to share information sooner in the process.

The rights group said that a lack of information about where and when reunions would happen had led to potential dangers for families. In one case, the ACLU said, immigration officials reunited a mother with her 6-month-old daughter then dropped them alone at bus stop late at night.

Sabraw will consider imposing those requirements on the government at a hearing on Friday at 1 p.m. PDT (2000 GMT) in San Diego.

The government adopted its family separation policy as part of a broader effort to discourage illegal immigration earlier this year. The Trump administration buckled to intense political pressure and abandoned the policy in June.

(Reporting by Tom Hals; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. seeks court guidance on deadlines to reunite migrant families

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

The U.S. government is seeking guidance from a federal court over its efforts to reunite migrant parents and their children before court-imposed deadlines, after the administration separated the families for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

In a filing overnight, U.S. Department of Justice officials asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of California for more details about procedures to reunite migrant families, saying in some cases the government may need additional time.

The separations have sparked a fierce outcry and numerous protests, part of a political firestorm over U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and beefed-up efforts to deter illegal U.S. entry.

The Trump administration had implemented the separation policy as part of stepped-up efforts to deter immigrants from crossing the U.S. border from Mexico.

But it reversed course last month amid a groundswell of global opposition and said it would keep families together if possible.

U.S. officials are now rushing to reunite more than 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border after the court in San Diego ordered the government last month to halt the practice.

Democrats and even some allies of the Republican president as well as foreign leaders and the Pope have condemned the separations, and protests continued over the weekend in cities across America over the issue.

Advocacy groups including the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit, have questioned the government’s contention it may need more time to safely reunite families, and have raised concerns about whether it has a comprehensive plan to bring families together.

The U.S. government is scheduled to update the federal judge in the San Diego case on the reunification process later on Friday.

U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw last month ordered that children under 5 years old be reunited with their parents by July 10, and for all children to be reunited by July 26. He also ordered that parents have phone contact with their children by Friday.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told reporters there were now “under 3,000” children in HHS care, including about 100 under the age of 5.

Azar said the U.S. government was relocating parents of children under 5 years old to detention facilities close to their children to help speed up family reunification.

The government, in its filing overnight, said the process could further be delayed by steps that were required before parents could be reconnected with their children, according to its interpretation of the court order: DNA testing to verify parentage, a criminal history check, and assurance that parents could provide for the child’s physical and mental well being.

As a result, some cases may require more time than allotted by the court, officials said, asking the court for guidance.

“HHS anticipates, however, in some instances it will not be able to complete the additional processes within the timelines the Court prescribed, particularly with regard to class members who are already not in Government custody,” they wrote.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Bernadette Baum)