MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Friday urged a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to quickly reunite migrant families separated at the border.
Pena Nieto called for “a permanent alternative that prioritizes the well-being and rights of minors” and expressed concern over a recent attack on a 92-year-old Mexican man legally residing in California, a statement from the presidency said. The man was reportedly beaten by a woman with a brick and told, “Go back to your country.”
Pena Nieto said such incidents “encourage a climate of hate and racism that we must avoid.”
Pompeo was visiting Mexico with Cabinet-level officials to meet with both Pena Nieto and president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after a sea-change election that could offer a chance for the neighbors to repair strained relations.
Discussions were expected to address ways to combat transnational criminal organizations, the U.S. opioid epidemic and trade tensions. But irregular migration across Mexico’s northern border into the United States also loomed large.
U.S.-Mexico ties have deteriorated significantly under President Donald Trump, who campaigned on building a border wall and has repeatedly blamed Mexico for economic and social problems in the United States.
Pompeo was accompanied by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. They offered congratulations to the president-elect. They met first with Pena Nieto and then with the leftist, populist Lopez Obrador.
Dozens of protesters jeered as Pompeo’s motorcade approached the modest office of Lopez Obrador, many condemning the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that separated families attempting to claim asylum in the United States.
“Where are our children?” read one sign. Another read, “Stop Trump.”
Pompeo offered congratulations to the president-elect.
“We wanted to come down here to let you know that President Trump cares deeply for the success of the relationship between our two countries. Our presence here today signals that to you,” Pompeo said. “We know there have been bumps in the road between our two countries, but President Trump is determined to make the relationship between our peoples better and stronger.”
Sharing a nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border, Mexico and the United States have traditionally coordinated closely on security and immigration. Mexico is also the United States’ third-largest trading partner for goods, with the U.S. buying about 80 percent of Mexico’s exports, including automobiles, fruit, vegetables and beer.
One proposed plan is to declare Mexico a “safe third country,” meaning people traveling through Mexico hoping to claim asylum in the U.S. would have to do so in Mexico instead, according to a Mexican official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. However, the official said, the proposal has very little support in Mexico, as it would burden the country with tens of thousands more asylum seekers a year, something the country lacks the resources to tackle.
Relations have also been strained by tit-for-tat trade tariffs between Mexico and the U.S. amid tense negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. That has sparked fears of an all-out trade war. Trump has branded the free trade pact, which also includes Canada, as a job killer for Americans.
In his statement, Pena Nieto emphasized his government’s willingness to continue renegotiating NAFTA to reach a deal “as quickly as possible.”
Despite positive statements from both sides, the upcoming transition of power in Mexico has the potential to further destabilize U.S.-Mexico relations if either leader takes aim at the other to appeal to his political base at home. They’re unlikely partners, as they occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Lopez Obrador has already announced his government will cancel a pending purchase of U.S. helicopters as an example of cost-cutting measures. The sale was initially promoted by the State Department as a move that would help a strategic partner fight against criminal organizations.
And November midterm elections in the U.S. bring the possibility that Trump could return to the rhetoric of his presidential campaign, which was derogatory toward Mexico.