Mexico agrees to hold asylum seekers at border




President Donald Trump speaks on the phone.

“We only will allow those who come into our Country legally,” President Donald Trump tweeted. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will work with the Trump administration to keep asylum seekers out of the U.S. while their applications are pending in court, according to a Mexican official with knowledge of the talks.

The tentative agreement is a departure from current U.S. procedure, which allows those seeking asylum to remain in the U.S. until their case is reviewed by an immigration judge. U.S. and Mexican officials have been secretly negotiating for the past two months, the official said, and are nearing a final deal.

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“There are still some things to be negotiated and finalized, but we’re almost there,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Trump seemed to confirm the agreement Saturday, tweeting that “Migrants at the Southern Border will not be allowed into the United States until their claims are individually approved in court.”

“We only will allow those who come into our Country legally,” the president wrote. “Other than that our very strong policy is Catch and Detain.”

James McCament, the Homeland Security Department’s acting undersecretary for policy, said the U.S. “has been working jointly with the current Mexican Government and the incoming administration of López Obrador to identify and address shared issues of concern,” but didn’t address the asylum plan specifically. The agreement was first reported by the Washington Post.

Mexico’s cooperation is a win for Trump, who has a history of clashing with foreign leaders. In recent weeks, Trump has focused intently on stopping migrant caravans from reaching the southern border and has often claimed, without evidence, that Central American refugees fleeing violence in their home countries pose a threat to national security.

Trump showed no signs of abating his attacks on Mexican leaders — a touchstone of his 2016 campaign — threatening over the weekend to close the border if Mexico “lose[es] control” of its side. The president’s comments first came during a news conference Thursday at Mar-a-Lago in which he falsely claimed he had already closed the border, and then later in the same press conference promised to do so in the future if things get out of hand. Trump repeated the threat on Twitter on Saturday night.

“If for any reason it becomes necessary, we will CLOSE our Southern Border,” Trump tweeted. “There is no way that the United States will, after decades of abuse, put up with this costly and dangerous situation anymore!“

Mexico’s cooperation could soften the threat of legal action against the Trump administration, which has lost a string of court battles over its immigration policies. A federal judge in San Francisco last week temporarily halted a fast-track regulation and presidential proclamation issued Nov. 9 that barred migrants who cross the border between ports of entry from seeking asylum.

Negotiations over the asylum deal have been complicated by Mexico’s presidential transition, the Mexican official said, and probably won‘t be announced until after López Obrador is sworn in Dec. 1. Representatives of the coming administration, while deeply involved, have been been operating in a diplomatic gray area while current president Enrique Peña Nieto is in power.

López Obrador — a left-wing populist who has pledged to stand up to Trump and root out corruption in Mexico — recognized that dealing with the migrant crisis will require cooperation, and saw it as an opportunity to negotiate with Trump from the outset, the Mexican official said.

“You cannot say it’s a Mexican problem, a US problem. It’s a problem that involves us all,” the official said. “Either you sit at the table or you’re a part of the menu.”

Advocates still will likely challenge Trump‘s plan, arguing that asylum seekers are required to remain in the U.S. Federal law states that asylum seekers “shall be detained for further consideration of the application.” If it’s determined the person does not have a “credible fear of persecution,” the law says, that person will be “removed from the United States without further hearing or review.”

“That’s where you get into legally dubious territory,” said Jennifer Quigley, a strategist for Human Rights First.

Ted Hesson contributed to this report.

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