SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of the midterm elections, with the migrant caravan marching steadily toward the border, Utah Sen. Mike Lee is in Mexico and Guatemala seeking solutions to America's burgeoning immigration crisis.
Lee, representing the state that brokered the Utah Compact on immigration as a statement of values supporting both families and public safety in 2010, says the United States should enter into an agreement with Mexico that would require Central American migrants to first seek asylum there before attempting to cross the border.
The “safe third-country agreement” would require asylum seekers to ask for protection in whichever of the two countries they enter first. Such an agreement already exists between the United States and Canada.
“This wave of caravans is enormous and it’s unlike anything we’ve seen, in terms of magnitude,” Lee, a Utah Republican told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview by phone from Mexico Thursday. “The subjective intent of any one individual or large group of people, that’s very difficult to predict exactly. A large group of people disregarding the law of the country they are entering, there’s a fear they might disregard our laws as well.”
Lee said that the White House was aware of his visit, but he did not elaborate on whether or not the visit was a part of a broader Trump administration policy strategy.
Just hours after the Deseret News spoke with Lee, the Trump administration announced a new rule limiting eligibility for asylum seekers coming from Mexico. The rule would prohibit migrants who cross the border outside of ports of entry from seeking asylum in the United States.
Lee said the "safe third-country agreement" could help sort out those who need help from those who present a national security risk. Only those that had been granted asylum in Mexico would then be admitted to the United States, without “overwhelming our system” with the need to process thousands of asylum claims on American soil.
He said he discussed the idea with officials in the administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico, and those in the incoming administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the country’s President-elect. Friday, he plans to do the same with Jimmy Morales, the President of Guatemala.
He stressed he didn't travel to Mexico to broker a deal, but to establish relationships and “feel out their level of interest” in such a proposal.
“I’m initiating a conversation surrounding U.S.-Mexico relations that was promoted in large part by these large caravans making their way towards the United States,” Lee said.
Lee said Mexico is a good candidate for a safe third-country agreement because “it does not have the same type of government-sponsored persecution of its citizenry that you see in other places in Central America,” and it is a country with “a lot of growth and opportunities and a growing respect for the rule of law.”
But Mexico may not be a safe place for everyone fleeing persecution in other countries, says Layla Razavi, Policy Director for the California Immigrant Policy Center.
“The same cartels have access to them and persecute them,” she says, adding that the hardship is especially great for the LGBT community and people with indigenous heritage, who frequently report persecution in Mexico and seek asylum from Mexico itself. “They are still afraid and are still in the mode of fleeing."
According to a July 2017 report by Human Rights First, migrants and refugees face “acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking and other grave harms in Mexico.” Mexican migration officers deport Central Americans who have expressed fear of return, the report states.
Immigration attorney Tammy Lin says that Mexico does not have adequate infrastructure to handle processing a sudden influx of asylum seekers.
“It is an infrastructure that [the United States] and a lot of developed countries have, but Mexico will have to hire and train people, and find the money to do that,” says Lin. “Will the United States be footing the bill for that?”
“They are thinking it’s a quick fix and it’s not,” Lin says.
Lee acknowledges that the problem is complex, and solving it will not be simple.
"This is a complicated problem," he says. "I don't think we are going to find a silver bullet solution."
But despite the challenges ahead, Lee says resolving the border crisis is necessary in order to maintain a strong relationship between the United States and Mexico. For Lee, that relationship is personal.51 comments on this story
Lee served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in McAllen, Texas, where he learned to speak Spanish and "grew to love the people on the border who were overwhelmingly Hispanic." His parents met in Mexico, and both his brother and his son and served missions there.
"I have a great love for the Mexican people and a great love of this country," he says.
Utah, in November 2011, brought business, civic, law enforcement and religious leaders together to sign a Utah Compact of principles espousing an approach to immigration based on a common humanity.