Mexico denies deal with US to host asylum seekers

Incoming government says talks ongoing but no formal agreement reached as thousands await to cross border into US.

    Mexico denies deal with US to host asylum seekers
    Thousands of Central Americans have trekked through Mexico and arrived in recent days to the border town of Tijuana, hoping to cross into the US [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

    Mexico's incoming government has denied reports that it has agreed to allow asylum seekers to wait in the country while their claims move through US immigration courts, one of several options the Trump administration has been pursuing in negotiations for months.

    The deal was seen as a way to dissuade thousands of Central American migrants and refugees from seeking asylum in the US, a process that can take years.

    In effect, Mexican border towns are already acting as waiting rooms for migrants and refugees hoping to start new lives in the US due to bottlenecks at the border.

    "There is no agreement of any sort between the incoming Mexican government and the US government," future Interior Minister Olga Sanchez said in a statement on Saturday.

    Hours earlier, The Washington Post cited her as saying that the incoming administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had agreed to allow asylum seekers to stay in Mexico as a "short-term solution" while the US considered their applications for asylum. Lopez Obrador will take office on December 1.

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    The statement shared with The Associated Press news agency said the future government's principal concern related to the migrants and refugees is their well-being while in Mexico.

    'Remain in Mexico'

    The Washington Post reported on Saturday that the Trump administration has won support from the Mexican president-elect's team for a plan dubbed "Remain in Mexico".

    The newspaper also quoted Sanchez as saying: "For now, we have agreed to this policy of Remain in Mexico."

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    Sanchez did not explain in the statement why The Washington Post had quoted her as saying there had been an agreement.

    White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said: "President Trump has developed a strong relationship with the incoming (Lopez) Obrador Administration, and we look forward to working with them on a wide range of issues."

    Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, described the 'Remain in Mexico' plan as a strategy to take away the ability of migrants to live and work in the US while cases are processed.

    "The hope is that asylum seekers will not want to live in [Mexico] for months/years and won't come," Leutert said via Twitter.

    'Very controversial'

    Thousands of Central Americans who have trekked through Mexico arrived in recent days to the border town of Tijuana, hoping to cross into the US.

    US officials have said for months that they were working with Mexico to find solutions for what they have called a border crisis.

    One variation, called "Safe Third," would have denied asylum claims on the grounds that asylum seekers had found haven in Mexico.

    But, Sanchez said on Saturday that the next government does not plan for Mexico to become a "Safe Third" country.

    Ana Maria Salazar Slack, a former policy adviser to the US Special Envoy for the Americas, said the issue is a "very controversial" one in Mexico.

    "I don't think it's a done deal, but I wouldn't doubt that conversations are taking place between the incoming government and the White House," she told Al Jazeera in an interview from Hermosillo in northwest Mexico. 

    "This conversation has also taken place with the current government, which has been reluctant to sign on to any document, by which the Mexican government would keep asylum seekers in Mexico - in part, it has to do with resources, and in part, because it would be criticised in Mexico if the Mexican government accepts such an agreement.

    "I think what they're going to try to do is reach some type of an informal agreement by which Mexico would keep the migrants until the situation is solved in the US, but it's very controversial here in Mexico."

    Meanwhile, Trump took to Twitter again on Saturday to reiterate that he plans to do away with the US catch-and-release system, which allows asylum seekers to work and study sometimes for years while their cases are pending.

    "Migrants at the Southern Border will not be allowed into the United States until their claims are individually approved in court," Trump wrote. "We only will allow those who come into our Country legally. Other than that our very strong policy is Catch and Detain. No 'Releasing' into the US..."

    "All will stay in Mexico. If for any reason it becomes necessary, we will CLOSE our Southern Border," Trump posted. 

    Approximately 5,000 Central American migrants have arrived in recent days to Tijuana, just south of California, after making their way through Mexico via caravan. But agents at the San Diego port of entry process fewer than 100 claims a day.

    Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum on Friday declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city of 1.6 million, which he says is struggling to accommodate the influx.

    Most of the migrants and refugees are camped inside a sports complex, where they face long wait times for food and bathrooms.

    Hundreds of Tijuana residents have protested their arrival, complaining that recent caravans forced their way into Mexico from Guatemala.

    SOURCE: AP news agency