WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico's incoming government has agreed to back the Trump administration's plan to change U.S. border policy by requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims move through U.S. courts, the Washington Post reported on Saturday.
Citing Mexican officials and senior members of president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's transition team, the newspaper said the agreement would break with long-standing asylum rules and mount a new obstacle to Central American migrants attempting to reach the United States and escape poverty and violence.
Reached for comment by Reuters, incoming deputy interior minister Zoe Robledo said details of the "Remain in Mexico" scheme were still being worked out.
He confirmed the plan in essence foresaw migrants staying in Mexico while asylum claims are being processed, and said the incoming government wanted to find jobs for them in sectors that are short-staffed, such as maquila assembly plants.
"What we're aiming for is that people leaving their countries due to security issues or violence can find a place to stay in Mexico if that is their decision," Robledo said.
Lopez Obrador has vowed to try to eliminate the causes of migration by creating more jobs and improving living conditions in Mexico and Central America.
In exchange, he hopes U.S. President Donald Trump and the Canadian government will agree to help spur economic development in the region.
Outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto has also sought to stem the flow of migrants north by offering jobs to them, and has received backing from the private sector in his efforts.
Olga Sanchez Cordero, Mexico's incoming interior minister and the top domestic policy official for Lopez Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1, told the Washington Post the plan, known as Remain in Mexico, was a "short-term solution."
"The medium- and long-term solution is that people don't migrate,” Sanchez Cordero said. "Mexico has open arms and everything, but imagine, one caravan after another after another, that would also be a problem for us."
The paper said that according to the outlines of the plan, asylum applicants at the border will have to stay in Mexico while their cases are processed, potentially ending the system Trump decries as "catch and release" that has until now generally allowed those seeking refuge to wait on safer U.S. soil.
Alison Leal Parker, U.S. managing director for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights organisation, said the policy was “a pathetic attempt by the United States to shirk responsibility. Central Americans have faced serious harm in Mexico."
The effect, Parker said, would likely "push people fleeing for lives into riskier attempts to find safety, including using criminal human smugglers who will gain power under this new policy.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House on the deal that the Washington Post said took shape last week in Houston during a meeting between Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, and top U.S. officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Without confirming the deal, James McCament, Homeland Security's Acting Under Secretary for Policy, said the U.S. government has been working since the Mexican elections with its current and incoming Mexican counterparts on trade, border policy and other issues.
"We appreciate the leadership and partnership the Mexican government has shown," McCament said.
Trump has been seeking to block thousands of Central Americans travelling in caravans from entering the United States, and has ordered that immigrants who enter the country illegally from Mexico are ineligible for asylum.
That order has been temporary suspended by a U.S. judge.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; additional reporting by Dave Graham and Delphine Schrank in Mexico City and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Marguerita Choy)