Two key members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet are hoping to soothe concern and anger about the new U.S. administration’s policies towards Mexico.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly meet Thursday with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and members of his cabinet, in what is expected to be the first in a series of high level meetings focusing on drug trafficking, trade and immigration.
“It’s significant that the president is sending the secretaries to Mexico so early in his administration,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday. “It’s symbolic of the meaningful relationship our two nations have.” He also referred to relations between the two countries as “healthy and robust.”
WATCH: Spicer on US-Mexico relationship
The trip comes at what is seen as a low point in relations between the two countries, which have enjoyed peace along their 3,100 kilometer-long common border since the Mexican-American War of the late 1840’s.
Trump has repeatedly insisted that Mexico, one way or another, must pay for a border wall, which lawmakers in Washington estimate would cost at least $12 billion. And just this week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlined policies that could result in the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.
On Wednesday, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, quoted by Reuters, said his country will not accept new “unilateral” U.S. immigration proposals and will not hesitate in taking the matter to the United Nations.
“This is a low point in U.S.-Mexico relations, and an abrupt break from the last thirty plus years of cooperation,” said Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
DHS Secretary Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, has long-standing relations with Mexican leaders from his previous job as head of the U.S. Southern Command. Before heading to Mexico he went to Guatemala to meet with President Jimmy Morales and observed the arrival of a DHS repatriation flight at a government facility in Guatemala City.
U.S. officials say Secretary of State Tillerson, who is a former an oil and gas corporation chief executive, and Kelly will discuss border security, law enforcement cooperation, and trade, among other issues.
Aside from President Nieto, the two are also scheduled to meet the Mexican ministers of interior, foreign relations, finance, national defense and the navy.
Tense Trump-Pena Nieto exchange
The talks come weeks after Trump and Nieto spoke by phone on January 27, following the U.S. president’s inauguration. News reports say the conversation was testy, with Trump chiding his Mexican counterpart for failing to control drug trafficking and suggesting the United States might even deploy troops to defeat narcotics cartels on Mexican territory.
President Nieto then canceled a planned trip to Washington.
Mexican officials have rejected calls by Trump to pay for a border wall. “Mexico wants to build bridges, not walls,” Mexican foreign minister Videgaray said last week.
And during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump referred to Mexican immigrants in the United States as rapists and criminals.
“While the visit (by Kelly and Tillerson) will go some way to smoothing bilateral discussions, there is a hard-earned trust that has been broken, and that can’t be repaired with a high level visit,” O’Neil told VOA.
While the two Cabinet members look to smooth relations, they will also be explaining the latest orders issued by Trump regarding immigration and deportations.
New policies being enacted at DHS will lead to hiring thousands more enforcement agents, expanding the number of immigrants targeted for deportation, prioritizing removal hearings for them and obtaining the help of local police to make arrests.
The actions have generated alarm in other countries, none more so than Mexico — the origin of an estimated six million undocumented people in the United States.
Such actions are prompting calls from prominent Mexicans for push-back.
“The Trump administration’s hostile beginning has also shifted Mexico’s domestic politics,” said O’Neil. “Rising nationalism there will make compromises with the United States all the harder as Mexico looks toward its own 2018 presidential race.”
Mexico’s richest businessman, Carlos Slim, who some want to see run for president next year, during a recent rare news conference called for people in his country to buy domestic products and not surrender to Trump’s demands.
The United States is Mexico’s largest trading partner. The two countries plus Canada have their economies intertwined as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
President Trump wants to make changes to NAFTA, which went into force 23 years ago.
“We’re going to review all the trade deals that are out there,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday.
Any attempt to introduce quotas or tariffs to NAFTA would be disastrous for the treaty, said Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo on Tuesday, speaking at a conference in Toronto about the future of North America.
Current and former Canadian government officials are pledging to not sacrifice trade ties with Mexico to cut a better bilateral deal with Washington should NAFTA be renegotiated.
Canada’s government should not throw Mexico “under the bus,” said former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who also spoke at the same event.