SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee is part of a congressional delegation that will visit Mexico this weekend to attend the inauguration of the country's new president, as the two nations search for an answer to the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The White House announced Monday that President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, would attend the inauguration of incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City on Saturday. Pence's plans to attend the inauguration were announced in October.
In an interview with the Deseret News Tuesday afternoon, Lee said he would be attending the inauguration as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation composed of at least eight House members including Texas congressman Michael McCaul, R-TX, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The list was not yet finalized as of Tuesday evening.
The announcement comes just days after the migrant caravan descended on the border, prompting the Trump administration to put forward 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 Lee floated earlier this month in a visit to Mexico.
The status of the proposal has been 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 an agreement.
Despite the back and forth, Lee said he was “very optimistic” about the outcome of the negotiations between the U.S. and Lopez Obrador’s government.
When asked if the purpose of Pence’s visit to Mexico was to broker a deal, Lee said he didn't know, but added, “I suspect he will be advocating for it. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t intending to help move that along.”
After the inauguration, Pence and Lopez Obrador are expected to have “some sort of informal discussion” about the situation on the border over lunch, a senior White House official told Politico.
The Trump administration's proposal closely resembles a plan Lee said he discussed in early November with officials in Obrador’s administration, as well as those in the administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, the outgoing president of Mexico.
Lee said he also met with Olga Sanchez Cordero, the incoming interior minister, during his trip.
“She was very eager to find a solution,” Lee said, “She was open to the idea of either of a Safe Third Country Agreement or alternatively something that would involve requiring asylees crossing through Mexico en route from Central American countries to stay in Mexico while any asylum applicants in the United States were pending.”
A Safe Third Country Agreement was a version of the Trump administration plan that was discussed extensively with the government of outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto, according to the Post. It would have barred Central Americans from applying for asylum in the United States, on the grounds they would no longer face persecution after arriving in Mexico.
A similar agreement exists between the United States and Canada.
But after Lopez Obrador’s landslide July 1 victory, senior members of Obrador’s transition team told the Post that a Safe Third Country Agreement with Mexico was unlikely.
That’s where the Trump administration's new plan, known as “Remain in Mexico,” comes in.
Some experts have called it “Safe Third Country-lite,” in which Central American asylum seekers would be required to wait in Mexico until their asylum status is granted.
Lee told the Deseret News earlier this month that this type of agreement could help sort out those who need help from those who present a national security risk. Only those who had been granted aslyum would then be admitted to the United States, without “overwhelming our system” with the need to process thousands of asylum claims on U.S. soil.
Lee said while the Trump administration would have preferred the full “Safe Third Country Agreement,” which would have kept Central American aslyum seekers in Mexico permanently, officials in the Obrador administration “appear more open to” the Remain in Mexico plan, which would keep migrants in Mexico temporarily while asylum is sought in the U.S.
Mexico is willing to consider the plan, Lee says, because the country “does not want to be the landing strip for people...to enter the United States illegally.”
Lee added that it’s important to find a solution out of respect for the American rule of law.
“We cannot, as a country, allow for mob behavior and manifested overt disrespect and contempt for our laws and basic principles of orderliness to intimidate us into just saying, never mind, these rules have no consequences. Never mind, these boundaries don’t mean anything. We can’t do that,” Lee said. “If we do that we will have lost something, not only for the people who are already here, but also the people who would like one day to come here.”
But some experts said it is just that -- America's rule of law -- that protects asylum seekers' right to cross the border and claim asylum in the first place.
“What is good for our country is that we respect our own rule of law,” says David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association. “And our own rule of law is that people can apply for asylum in this country. If they want to change that, they can go to Congress."
In fact, Congress wrote a specific clause into U.S. asylum law to ensure that everyone, regardless of immigration status and whether or not they cross the border at a port of entry, would have a right to seek asylum, says Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.
She said that the Remain in Mexico plan could put migrants at risk.
A July 2017 report by Human Rights First states that migrants and refugees face “acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, and other grave harms in Mexico.”
Whatever plan emerges, both sides of the border appear to be working toward a compassionate solution to a difficult problem.
“It’s not good for Mexico, it’s not good for the United States, and it’s not good for the economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries,” Lee continued. “That’s why both countries are eager to address this problem.”