President Trump's push to ramp up U.S. immigration enforcement and increase deportations is further souring U.S. ties with Mexico, where the administration's orders could destabilize the country's economy and political system.
Guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) this week recommends sending anyone detained for entering the U.S. illegally to Mexico regardless of whether they are from that country.
The guidelines could also lead to millions of deportations, something that could cut into the $24 billion in remittances that workers in the United States send to Mexico each year.
Mexican officials are also concerned with the Trump administration’s effort to review all U.S. aid to their country, fearing the money could be used to pay for a proposed border wall or used as leverage in negotiations.
"[Trump] wants to have a number to later manipulate and cackle," said a Mexican official with knowledge of the situation.
Amid the rising tensions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly met Thursday with top Mexican officials.
Both sides acknowledged the disputes that have marred the countries’ relationship but expressed hope that they could be resolved.
“We don’t agree on the different measures” that are related to deportations, said Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray voiced “our concern to respect the rights of Mexicans living in the United States” and said it was a “legal impossibility” for the U.S. government “to take positions that will affect the other government in a unilateral way.”
Videgaray called for a future North American summit on immigration, which would include Central American nations where many migrants to the U.S. come from.
Tillerson invited Mexican officials to Washington to continue those discussions.
“In a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two sovereign countries from time to time will have their differences,” Tillerson told reporters, adding that both sides “raised our respective concerns.”
The deportation guidelines have deepened the mutual hostility sparked by Trump’s desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and force the U.S. southern neighbor to foot the bill for a wall along their shared border.
"We cannot humiliate a country to the bargaining table," said Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush.
"It’s going to be extremely difficult for Mexico to take anything but a combative stance," he added. "We have given them no option."
Even as Tillerson and Kelly were dispatched to smooth over tensions with Mexico, Trump once again publicly criticized the country over trade and trumpeted his deportation plan as a “military operation.”
He decried America’s "$70 billion" trade deficit with Mexico; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative puts the figure at $58 billion.
"It’s unsustainable," Trump said during a meeting with manufacturing CEOs, speaking of the trade deficit. "We’re going to have a good relationship with Mexico, I hope. And if we don’t, we don’t. But we can’t let that happen.”
Trump said he told Tillerson his visit is "going to be a tough trip because we have to be treated fairly with Mexico.’”
The timing of the DHS memos harked back to a controversy in late January, when Trump announced his executive order on immigration and construction of a border wall on the same day that top Mexican officials were visiting the White House.
The order led to the cancellation of a meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, with Mexican officials rejecting the idea their government would pay for the wall.
In a call intended to mend fences, Trump volunteered to send U.S. troops to Mexico to fight drug cartels and crime. The comment, which the White House said was made in jest, was not received well south of the border.
The feud reignited on Wednesday, when Videgaray slammed the guidelines set forth by Kelly.
“We are not going to accept it because we don’t have to accept it,” Videgaray said.
“I want to make clear, in the most emphatic way, that the government of Mexico and the Mexican people do not have to accept measures that one government wants to unilaterally impose on another.”
Videgaray took objection to the rule that allows federal authorities to deport immigrants to Mexico if they entered the U.S. from there, even if they are not Mexican nationals.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday insisted the U.S.-Mexico relationship remains healthy.
"No," Spicer said when asked if the Cabinet officials were sent to Mexico to do a clean-up job.
"I think the relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now and I think there's an unbelievable and robust dialogue between the two nations."
Tillerson and Kelly planned to "talk through the implementation" of the new immigration rules, Spicer said.
But the Mexican official with knowledge of the situation told The Hill the Mexican government's reaction to the guidelines was based in international law, a sign the country could seek to resolve the dispute at the United Nations or another multinational body.
"There is no extraterritoriality in domestic policy measures, either under a healthy relationship between neighboring countries or under international law," said the official.
The heated tone comes as Peña Nieto's government has reaped political rewards for standing up to Trump.
It’s helped buoy his presidency, which has suffered from a long period of perilously declining poll numbers.
Tillerson and Kelly underlined the need for a secure border, emphasizing the importance of stopping firearms from being smuggled south from the United States, a longstanding concern for Mexico.
Kelly also defended the DHS program, berating the media for reporting a policy of mass deportations and the possibility of using the military to enforce immigration law.
"Let me be very, very clear: There will be no, repeat, no mass deportations," Kelly said.