The urgent talks to avert President Trump’s threat of tariffs on Mexico are running into a serious obstacle: The president’s demand that in return Mexico must promise to put a complete stop to illegal immigration into the United States.
In a series of tweets and remarks over the past week, Mr. Trump vowed to impose a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican imports on Monday unless the country’s officials take actions that would end, in particular, the surge of migrants from Central America pressing to cross the border, something he has insisted the Mexicans could solve “in one day if they so desired.”
That demand from Mr. Trump loomed over Wednesday’s talks between Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican foreign minister, Vice President Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, according to a senior administration official familiar with the discussions in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
But diplomats on both sides of the border and immigration experts say the demand is fanciful thinking. While most agree that Mexico could step up enforcement and provide more humanitarian relief to migrants, they say there is nothing Mexico could do to completely stop all immigration into the United States.
“It shows a basic misunderstanding about the patterns of migration,” said Kevin Appleby, a veteran of Washington’s immigration wars over two decades. “The Mexican government could take some steps. But there are going to be ways that migrants get to our border regardless of what the Mexicans do.”
Hoping to mollify Mr. Trump, Mr. Ebrard said during Wednesday’s meeting that his government was willing to step up enforcement at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, where many of the Central American migrants begin their journey through Mexico to the United States border.
He also told Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico is committed to cracking down on transnational gangs who make money by regularly trafficking migrants through Mexico, according to the American official. Mr. Ebrard also promised that the Mexican government would offer asylum to thousands of Central American migrants who might otherwise seek protection in the United States.
Whatever the potential impact of the Mexican proposals, Mr. Pence and the other American officials rejected them as likely to curtail illegal immigration only at the margins — and so did not meet the president’s demands.
The Americans told their Mexican counterparts that the president was insisting on wholesale changes to address the severity of the problem at the border. Among the changes they pushed for on Wednesday was Mexico’s willingness to adopt a so-called “safe third country” treaty. Such an agreement would require Mexico to allow any migrant from Central America or elsewhere to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than continuing on to the United States.
If such a treaty were signed, the United States could change its own asylum laws to prohibit anyone who has not requested asylum in Mexico from making the same request in the United States. Officials believe that could significantly reduce the number of migrants who seek refuge in the United States.
But Mexico has been firmly opposed to a “safe third country” treaty for years, believing that it would make Mexico the country of last resort for migrants and refugees throughout the entire hemisphere. Mr. Ebrard reiterated his country’s staunch opposition to the idea earlier in the week.
The disagreement — and Mr. Trump’s insistence on actions that could end all illegal immigration — have dimmed hopes for an immediate breakthrough before Monday’s tariff deadline.
Talks between Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and lawyers for the Mexican government were scheduled to take place at the White House on Thursday. The administration official said the lawyers were expected to discuss the legal issues surrounding a “safe third country” treaty.
Diplomats for Mexico and the United States are also scheduled to meet at the State Department. But officials stressed that Mr. Trump would be the one to decide whether the Mexican government was willing to do enough to escape the tariffs. The president is scheduled to return to Washington from Europe on Friday.