The Cable

Tillerson and Kelly’s Visit to Mexico Went About as Well as You’d Expect

Trump calls it a “tough trip.”


America’s top diplomat and top U.S. counterterrorism official were in Mexico Thursday for what could only be described as an awkward visit.

First, there’s the issue of the wall that U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to build along the U.S.-Mexican border. And then those new rules, released Tuesday, that authorize U.S. federal agents to deport undocumented immigrants to Mexico, whether or not they are Mexican.

The incoming Mexican ambassador to the United States called the new policy “unacceptable.”  

Appearing together at a press conference, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray thanked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly for their presence in Mexico and stressed that honest dialogue on all topics — “migration, security, and, of course, trade” — is the best way to solve differences.

Videgaray said he and Tillerson had discussed the need to “respect the rights of Mexicans living in the United States” and agreed that decisions that affect both parties need to be made by both parties. He added there was “a long way to go” before a deal was reached with the United States on border security and trade, and also that Central American countries should be included in deliberations, too.

Tillerson then chimed in, thanking “his good friend Luis,” and noting he spent most of his life living in Texas, which means Mexico has long been his “very close neighbor.” Tillerson called the visit “forward-looking,” and said he and Videgaray “jointly acknowledged … two strong, sovereign countries from time to time will have differences.”

Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos said, in his meeting with Kelly, he had stressed the need for cooperation, permanent dialogue, and the need to “maintain the human rights for all Mexicans in your country.” He observed, “Mexico needs the United States and the United States needs Mexico.”

Mexicans more broadly gave Tillerson and Kelly a decidedly lukewarm welcome. Someone (though the bus company would not say who) rented a bus adorned with an advertisement featuring Trump’s visage and a quote that roughly translates to, “We are Mexicans and we f*ck your mother.”

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s boss may have made things more difficult for his top diplomat. Trump criticized U.S.-Mexico relations while Tillerson was in Mexico, saying at a meeting with business leaders, “$70 billion in trade deficits and that doesn’t include the drugs that are flowing across the border.”

“That’s going to be a tough trip … that’s going to be a tough trip,” Trump remarked. But then asserted Kelly has been “unbelievable” at strengthening the border.

“For the first time we are getting gang lords out, drug lords out, these bad dudes out of this country and at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before and they’re the bad ones,” Trump declared, calling the effort “a military operation.”

It is not, in fact, a military operation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Border Patrol agents are civilian, not military, agents. Kelly himself said in Mexico there will be “no, repeat, no use of military force immigration operations. None.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the U.S.-Mexico relationship “phenomenal” in defending the tense atmosphere of the visit. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox disagreed.

Current Mexican government officials also had other thoughts. Videgaray said Wednesday that Mexico had no reason to accept unilateral decisions imposed by another country. “We are not going to accept that, because we don’t have to.”

Correction, Feb. 23 2017, 4:29 pm ET: This piece originally misstated that Tillerson and Kelly arrived in Mexico on Thursday (they were in Mexico Thursday, but arrived on Wednesday), called Border Patrol “Border Control,” and called ICE officers “agents” instead of “officers.” It has been updated to fix all of the above. Additionally, the phrase “illegal immigrants” has been changed to “undocumented immigrants.”

Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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