Rex Tillerson Tasked With Helping Soothe Tensions With Mexico

Former Exxon Mobile Executive Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Wednesday January 11, 2017.
Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Former Exxon Mobile Executive Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Wednesday January 11, 2017.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Mexico Wednesday afternoon ahead of talks with President Enrique Peña Nieto — a trip that, for past administrations, was often full of routine and breezy diplomatic interactions.

But not for President Donald Trump's administration.

Tillerson, the new head of the State Department, will attempt to smooth over tensions sparked by brash rhetoric, plans to build a border wall, and most recently the Department of Homeland Security's new immigration guidelines.

The plans unveiled Tuesday would consider almost all undocumented immigrants subject to deportation, and includes sending those who enter the U.S. illegally via the southern border back to Mexico, even if they aren't from there.

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Mexico, unsurprisingly, was not impressed. The nation's lead negotiator with the Trump administration, Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, said Wednesday there was no way Mexico would accept the new rules.

"I want to say clearly and emphatically that the government of Mexico and the Mexican people do not have to accept provisions that one government unilaterally wants to impose on the other," he told reporters at the foreign ministry.

"We also have control of our borders and we will exercise it fully," he said.

Videgaray said the new DHS guidelines would dominate the talks. Mexico will insist that the United States proves the nationality of any person it wants to deport to Mexico, he said.

Roberto Campa, who heads the human rights department of the Interior Ministry, said the plan to deport non-Mexicans to Mexico was "hostile" and "unacceptable."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday denied that Tillerson's trip to Mexico with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was an effort to repair any ill will created by the new president. He described the relationship between the two countries as "phenomenal right now."

"I would argue that we have a very healthy and robust relationship with the Mexican government and Mexican officials," Spicer told reporters during the daily press briefing. "And I think they would echo that same sentiment."

Tillerson had begun laying the groundwork to help strengthen the U.S.-Mexico relationship before this trip. But he has his work cut out for him.

"A trip to Mexico by the secretary of state is like a layup. It's when a Big Ten school plays a small college in preseason and wins by 40 points," Richard Stengel, a former State Department official under Secretary John Kerry, said on MSNBC. "This shouldn't be a hard thing. The president has made it very hard."

Last month, a planned visit by Peña Nieto to the White House was cancelled in the wake of a fiery spat over which nation will pay for Trump's contentious border wall. The pair later spoke by phone after the cancellation, calling the conversation "constructive and productive."

Though Mexican leaders continue to say they will not pay for the wall, the war of words between the heads of state has largely subsided for now. Mexican leaders say Trump pledged he would stop speaking publicly about the barrier and walked back a proposal to add a 20 percent tax to Mexican products imported into the U.S.

Administration officials have said the Tillerson trip will be focused on the areas where the two countries can find agreement. Paying for the wall is just one aspect of the vast range of issues facing the two countries.

But the political detente has not settled passions in either country.

Widespread anti-Trump protests were held in 18 cities across Mexico earlier this month. Cities in the U.S. held a "Day Without Immigrants" protests to showcase the importance of immigrants.

"Clearly the relationship between Mexico and the United States is the worst it's been in 25 years," James Jones, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Clinton, told MSNBC.

"At a time when we have great cooperation with Mexico both on economics, as well as national security this is something that has to be mended and I think both Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly are the ones to deliver the message and to try to get it back on track," he added.