SALT LAKE CITY — As the migrant caravan descended on the border this weekend, the Trump administration announced a potential solution that would require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims move through U.S. courts. The plan echoes a proposal Utah Sen. Mike Lee floated earlier this month in a visit to Mexico.
But the status of the proposal is now up in the air. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported Mexico had agreed to the plan. But Mexican officials pushed back shortly after the article was published, denying they'd signed off on the agreement.
That could be because the incoming presidential administration, which does not assume office until Saturday, may not yet have the legal authority to conduct business with another country, says Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.
The proposal closely resembles a plan Lee said he discussed in early November with officials in the administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico, and those in the incoming administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the country’s President-elect.
Lee said he met with Olga Sanchez Cordero, the incoming interior minister, during his recent trip.
"We discussed several possible remedies, including a safe third country agreement and the idea of requiring asylum applicants to remain in Mexico while their applications are pending," Lee told the Deseret News Monday. "Developing personal relationships and engaging in meaningful dialogue around principled policy is critical to developing lasting solutions to international challenges.”
Such an agreement already exists between the United States and Canada.
Lee told the Deseret News in an interview on Nov. 9 from the airport in Mexico shortly after his meeting with Cordero that the White House was aware of his visit, but did not elaborate on whether or not the visit was part of a broader Trump administration policy strategy.
The plan, known as “Remain in Mexico,” would end a practice Trump has called “catch and release,” which he says has allowed those seeking refuge to wait in the U.S. while their asylum claims make their way through the courts. Instead, the plan would require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their asylum status is granted.
This agreement would change long-standing U.S. policy and would place a strong barrier in the path of Central American migrants attempting to reach the United States "fleeing violence and harm," says David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Layers Association, based in Washington, D.C.
Some experts say that Mexico may not be a safe place for those fleeing persecution in other countries. The plan could put migrants at risk, says Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“We have not seen any specific proposal, what we do know is that leaving asylum seekers stranded in Mexico can put them in danger,” Gelernt said. “The Trump administration should focus on providing a fair and lawful asylum process in the U.S. rather than seeking more ways to undermine it.”
Lee told the Deseret News earlier this month that a "safe third-country agreement" could help sort out those who need help from those who present a national security risk. Only those that had been granted asylum in Mexico would then be admitted to the United States, without “overwhelming our system” with the need to process thousands of asylum claims on American soil.
Leutert said asylum seekers are “prime targets” for kidnappers in Mexico, where capturing migrants and demanding ransom from their family members has become a lucrative business.
According to a July 2017 report by Human Rights First, migrants and refugees face “acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking and other grave harms in Mexico.”
Leutert says the plan may also present issues associated with asylum seekers’ constitutional right to due process -- such as how asylum seekers will be guaranteed access to legal representation in Mexico, and whether they will have to cross the border in order to attend to court hearings in the United States.