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Under New Deal, Asylum Seekers Will Wait In Mexico While Claims Are Processed


All right. We're going to turn now to some news about immigration policy. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has announced that the U.S. and Mexico have reached an agreement. Third-country migrants will wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. Now, this is a big policy shift. Up until this point, people wanting asylum in the U.S. have waited to be processed within the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Mexico City.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what is the Mexican government saying about this agreement?

KAHN: They actually just sent out a press release. Every morning at 7 a.m., the new president holds a press conference, but they waited until he was done with his press conference and sent out this news release. This is a major policy reversal for Mexico. Traditionally, they have refused to take these third-country migrants from the United States. And so this is a big change. They say that they still have the right - and the sovereign right - to reject any migrants that are being brought back into Mexico. But there's a lot that still doesn't know - that still isn't it - details haven't been hashed out about how this is going to work.

KING: Carrie, do we know how many migrants are currently waiting in Mexico at the moment?

KAHN: Oh, there are thousands.

KING: Thousands.

KAHN: The number could be up to about 9,000. But in Tijuana right now, where that migrant caravan had landed and had amassed there, there's at least 3,000 to 5,000 people. But there's other shelters in southern Mexico and along other border cities in northern Mexico. And at one point, the governor of the state of Baja California put the number at 9,000. I think that that might be lower now, but it's in the thousands.

KING: A single asylum case can take months or even years to process, to reach a conclusion. Does Mexico have the resources to support thousands of people while they're waiting?

KAHN: That's a great question. And that is the big question. And it has caused tension in these border cities with Mexicans. Let's take Tijuana, for example. In Tijuana, there's a lot of foreign-owned factories, the maquiladoras. They have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico, and they've had labor shortages. And they've actually held job fairs recently to allow the Honduran migrants from the caravan - that are mostly from Honduras - to get jobs there.

So there are jobs there. But the Mexican government has spun this, that their long-term plan is that what they want to do is to have development projects in southern Mexico and in Central America. They put a price tag of $30 billion that they want to create jobs in that region, the poorest regions that are sending migrants to the United States, so that these migrants stay at home. And this seems to have been a - you know, it seems like there's been negotiations between Mexico and the United States that the United States will contribute to this plan, which Mexico has been calling its Marshall Plan for Central America and southern Mexico. And in return, Mexico will accept these third-country migrants while they await asylum processes in the United States.

KING: And it sounds like they may even be welcome for long periods of time in Mexico. Why is the Mexican government being so proactive in this case? Why the big shift?

KAHN: That is a good question. You could think about it politically. It is clear from the get-go that the new government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador does not want to have a big stink with the Trump administration like his predecessor did. And some people will have to see how this plays out. It was just announced, but some people will see this as Mexico caving to that. But Mexico also wants the United States to invest in this Marshall Plan. So maybe there was some sort of quid pro quo there. We'll have to see.

KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.