Sec. Tillerson Faces Mexican Leaders During ‘Tough Trip'

Andrew Rafferty
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray arrive to a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry building in Mexico City on February 23, 2017.
Ronaldo Schemidt | AFP | Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continued talks with Mexican officials on Thursday ahead of a planned meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto — a trek that President Donald Trump himself acknowledged was "going to be a tough trip."

"This visit takes place at a complex time for relations between our two countries," Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said after his meeting with Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

"At a time when both of our countries and our governments have notable differences, the best path to solving them is dialogue," he added.

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Tillerson, the new head of the State Department, is working 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.

Videgaray, Mexico's lead negotiator with the Trump administration, 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.

On Thursday, Videgaray and Tillerson described their talks as "productive" and discussed getting to the source of the Central American migration issue, the implication of U.S. policies on Mexico and preventing terrorism and criminal activity.

Tillerson also stressed that controversial deportations would be conducted legally.

"The focus of deportation will be on the criminal element, all of this will be done in close coordination with 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."

Mexico Relationship 'Phenomenal Right Now'

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.