Two of President Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and their Mexican counterparts emphasized cooperation and friendship after two days of talks in Mexico — but the meetings seemed unlikely to quell profound tension between the two countries or clear up confusion over the plans of the Trump administration.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly said Thursday at a press briefing that there would be no large-scale deportations from the United States or use of military force along the border — comments aimed at allaying Mexican fears about the Trump administration’s ongoing immigration crackdown.
“There will be no — repeat, no — mass deportations," Kelly said at the Mexican Foreign Ministry. "There will be no use of military force in immigration."
That appeared to put him at odds with Trump, who earlier in the day said recent immigration raids were unprecedented and called ongoing efforts along the border a “military operation.”
Kelly appeared at the news briefing with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray and Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
The two U.S. officials were in Mexico on a two-day trip meant to repair relations with Mexico at a time when many Mexicans view the Trump administration as hostile to them.
The White House and Mexican officials have clashed on a number of issues, including Trump’s vow to build a wall along the border and his pledges to step up deportations and impose a new tax on goods imported from Mexico.
“In our meetings, we jointly acknowledged that, in a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences,” Tillerson told reporters. “We listened closely and carefully to each other as we respectfully and patiently raised our respective concerns.”
The U.S. Cabinet secretaries later met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexican officials were measured in their public comments, expressing a desire to find common ground but also skepticism about U.S. intentions.
“Mexico needs the United States,” Osorio Chong said in a statement to the media. “But the United States needs Mexico,”
For his part, Videgaray emphasized that it was a “legal impossibility” for Mexico to accept “unilateral” decisions imposed by another government.
That was an apparent reference to a Trump administration proposal that Central Americans in the U.S. illegally who are detained along the southern border should be sent to Mexico — even though they are not Mexican citizens.
On Thursday, Kelly appeared to go back on that plan, saying in Guatemala that his agency would return deportees "to their home country as quickly as possible."
Videgaray also expressed “worry” for the rights of Mexican nationals in the United States as the Trump administration embarks on an a wide-ranging crackdown on immigrants in the United States illegally. He also referred directly to the “negative feelings that without doubt are prevalent” between the two neighbors with deep economic, social, political and cultural ties.
“It will be a long road to construct agreements with the United States, but today we have taken a step in the right direction,” he said. “The differences between Mexico and the United States remain and we will have to work to arrive at agreements that will be in the interest of Mexico and Mexicans.”
In private, Videgaray was less restrained, according to a report in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, which published excerpts of what it described as a private conversation between the foreign secretary and Mexican lawmakers.
Mexico is preparing for a long “battle” with the administration, Videgaray reportedly told the legislators Wednesday, suggesting that the country was prepared to enter a trade war with the United States if necessary.
“We are here preparing for a battle that is going to be long,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “This is not going to be resolved in three days.”
He also said that Mexico was ready to place new tariffs on U.S.-made goods should the Trump administration follow up on its threats to slap a tax of 20% or more on goods imported from Mexico and other countries with which the United States has trade deficits.
Videgaray said that time was on Mexico’s side: “Time has been wearing down President Donald Trump. He has had missteps that are placing him against the weight of reality.”
Trump is recognizing that the position of U.S. president is not “omnipotent,” he said.
“You know as well as I that we are not going to change Donald Trump’s way of thinking, we are not going to convince him, and he is going to continue being president for a long time. But we have to recognize that, yes, we have strategic advantages and strengths in this process of dialogue and eventual negotiation.”
At the same time, the foreign secretary reportedly warned that Mexico could not allow the manufacturing sector to be “frozen” too long, amid the current uncertainly about U.S.-Mexico trade: “There is a reality: We don’t want to create a climate of dissuading investment in Mexico.”
Mexico’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the United States, the destination for about 80% of Mexico’s exports. The possibility of new tariffs on Mexican exports has sent shock waves through Mexico’s already shaky economy.
There was no official response from the Mexican Foreign Ministry on Videgaray’s reported remarks.
The trip to Mexico City marks the third fence-mending foray this month by Trump’s top deputies as they seek to shore up relations with longtime allies alarmed by the president’s often confusing signals on foreign policy and by tumult in the White House.
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, as well as Tillerson and Kelly, fanned out in Europe to reassure allies that the administration remains committed to the NATO military alliance and to maintaining sanctions on a resurgent Russia, issues where Trump had raised doubts.
Mattis previously visited Japan and South Korea to reassure them that the White House does not plan to pull back from its security commitments in Northeast Asia, as candidate Trump had suggested.
Europeans welcomed those efforts but remained skeptical.