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Two members of Trump's Cabinet are heading to Mexico. Here are five things to watch

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly are heading to Mexico this week for high-stakes talks with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and other top officials.

The visit, during which the diplomats are expected to discuss trade, security and other issues, comes at a frosty moment in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Last month,  Peña Nieto canceled a scheduled visit to Washington after Trump vowed on Twitter to make Mexico pay for construction of a massive border wall between the two nations. During a subsequent phone call aimed at mending differences, Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to stop “bad hombres down there,” according to the Associated Press.

Since his inauguration Jan. 20, Trump has announced plans for a new 20% tax on Mexican imports as well as mass deportations of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. — the majority of whom are Mexican.

Here are five things to watch as the diplomats prepare for meetings that could have major consequences for one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships.

The economy

Trump is convinced that the U.S. and Mexico have an unfair economic relationship because the U.S. has a trade deficit with its southern neighbor. He has threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and has proposed a tax on imports from Mexico and other countries with which the U.S. has a trade deficit.

Both plans pose a serious threat to Mexico, which sends roughly 80% of its exports to the U.S., and whose peso has plummeted amid fears of what the Trump administration may do.

Experts say Mexico will do everything in its power to preserve NAFTA, and will call for the deal to be renegotiated, instead of completely scrapped. Some Mexican officials actually see renegotiation of the agreement as a good opportunity to revisit industries such as energy, some sectors of which were left out of the original agreement. The U.S. diplomats, however, are unlikely to support any changes that wouldn’t reduce the trade deficit. 

On the issue of the proposed import tax, Mexico is likely to seek clarification on what goods exactly the U.S. hopes to tax. Mexico could respond by taxing certain imports from the U.S., possibly sparking a trade war. 

The reaction in Mexico

Many Mexicans are deeply offended by Trump, who as a presidential candidate seemed to insult a whole class of Mexicans by saying a lot of those coming across the border were drug dealers and rapists. This month, 20,000 people took to the street in Mexico City to protest his presidency.

Some wonder what Peña Nieto hopes to achieve from this week’s talks, and many have called on him to take a tougher stance with the United States.

Journalist Carmen Aristegui wrote in the Reforma newspaper that Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings are nearing the single digits, should lay out firm ground rules before proceeding with talks. 

"Instead of welcoming Tillerson and Kelly ... as if nothing had happened, the Peña administration should say there is no basis to negotiate on any topic at all, until the executive order to build this absurd and offensive wall is withdrawn and our countrymen are no longer criminalized or prosecuted," Aristegui said.

Immigration

On Tuesday, the Trump administration called for a vast crackdown on illegal immigration, clearing immigration agents to target any of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally for removal, instead of only those who have been convicted of a crime. 

That could affect more than 5 million Mexicans believed to be living without permission in the United States. 

Mexican officials are likely to ask Kelly and Tillerson to assure that any deportations are carried out humanely and managed in a way that enables Mexico to absorb the deported individuals. In recent years, Mexico has cooperated closely with U.S. immigration authorities about the timing and location of deportations so that border cities such as Juarez and Tijuana don’t find themselves overwhelmed with large numbers of deportees. 

Mexico will also probably seek clarification on a memo published Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security that suggests U.S. authorities want to send some Central American immigrants back to Mexico, rather than to their home countries, while they wait for their asylum or deportation proceedings to finish in the United States. That could put a huge burden on Mexico, and especially border communities. 

Does Tillerson soothe nerves?

Many believe Tillerson could be a moderating influence in the Trump administration. A former energy executive, he understands the intricacies of international trade.

It may be that he will soothe nerves in Mexico, just as Vice President Mike Pence did this week during his visit to Europe, when he reassured European leaders that the Trump administration fully supports European institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — despite earlier comments from Trump suggesting otherwise. 

How does Mexico fight back?

Mexico did not initiate any of the current discussion with U.S. officials; it was happy with the status quo. 

As such, experts say Mexico has little leverage in discussions with the U.S.

Still, it may have a few bargaining chips. One of them is Peña Nieto’s threat to withhold cooperation on immigration and security if Trump insists on changes to trade.

Mexico has become something of a firewall to Central American migration to the United States, deporting hundreds of thousands of Central Americans along its own southern border last year, even more than the U.S. did. Mexico could decide to stop its enforcement efforts, and a lot more immigrants could end up knocking at the U.S. border. 

Mexico could also stop cooperating with the U.S. on security issues, like fighting drug cartels. But experts say Mexico is unlikely to do that. They say Mexico must fight organized crime because it is good for Mexico.

 

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Twitter: @katelinthicum

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