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"Tough stuff" on the border

Pence, Mexican protocols and the Guatemala 'safe third country' debate that continues to frustrate Trump's efforts to keep out asylum seekers.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the press conference at the McAllen Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, U.S. July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas Crédito: REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas

When Mike Pence visited the McAllen Border Patrol Station in Texas to review migrant detention conditions, he didn't have much to say. From televised snippets of the visit, the Vice President commented " This is tough stuff." He didn't even need to say that.

The sixty year-old evangelical Christian said volumes with his eyes, and his arms crossed tightly against his chest, as men do when confronted with tough stuff. They are taught in times of pain and sadness to assume an air of steely stoicism versus volubility. Pence's tight-lipped visage, as he scanned the overcrowded cell block, was appropriate for the cameras, yet I suspect it concealed genuine shock and pain in the man who claims to live by the Word of God. Pope Francis and a legion of other Christian leaders have repeatedly decried this administration’s policies. Mike Pence must have heard them, and the contradiction must have been acute in that foul-smelling cell.

How much harder must it have been for Pence to reflect that the fear and anguish of those migrant men, crammed together or huddled under thermal blankets, was a product of his own Administration's making. Since the beginning of the Trump government, Mike Pence has been the dutiful go-to guy for President Trump to deal with problems he doesn’t want. A recent USA Today column summarized Pence’s loyal second role, while highlighting how different his diplomatic personal style is compared to the President’s when engaging with foreign leaders. But there were no foreign leaders in the McAllen Station, only a Vice President of the United States of America listening intently as a Border Patrol official described the details of prison diets, toothbrushes and shower schedules … not for criminals, but for men detained simply for having fled desperation in Central America.

One can imagine that Pence might have been frustrated at being subjected to such administrative minutiae. Like all number two’s, perhaps he thought it should have been White House advisor Stephen Miller or the President himself who was exposed to the hard reality of what their immigration policies looked like for real, as opposed to at a campaign rally or in the Twittersphere. But this was a role Pence had already played.

After the President peremptorily threatened to levy tariffs on all Mexican imports to the United States, Mike Pence was dispatched to do the dirty work of details. Meeting over three days in Washington with Mexico's Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, the Vice President hammered out an agreement whereby Mexico would temporarily avoid the President's tariffs in exchange for improved enforcement of its own borders, effectively keeping Central Americans from requesting asylum in the U.S.

The diplomatic announcement referred only to the Mexican Protection Protocols - a plan where would-be asylum seekers remain quartered in Mexico until "metered" into the United States to have their claims adjudicated. Not specified in that statement, but known to be under active consideration, is a safe third country agreement with Mexico. Under such an accord, Mike Pence might not have to visit detention centers in the future, as Mexico would be compelled to offer asylum to Central Americans and return them to Central America if they do not qualify.

This same kind of arrangement with Guatemala, the leading source country for potential asylum seekers, has been rumored for weeks. Outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales was scheduled to meet with President Trump on July 15. One day prior, his government issued a statement canceling the visit due to that country's constitutional court, which is considering whether it would even be legal for Morales to sign a safe third country agreement.

The Guatemalan jurists are not alone. Numerous U.S. legal experts have alleged that a safe third country agreement flies in the face of international treaty law and violates the fundamental principle of non refoulement. Under this practice, a country is prohibited from returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a social group, or for their political beliefs. The nifty thing about forcing either Mexico or Guatemala to accept a safe third country agreement is that it avoids the refoulement question altogether because the migrants never get a chance to seek asylum in the United States.

Interestingly, and somewhat confusingly Guatemala's statement cancelling President Morales’ visit "reiterated that at no point it has considered signing an agreement" of this nature. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the Foreign Minister has stated that, if enforcement at its southern border with Guatemala does not reduce the flows of asylum seekers by mid-August, it would consider discussing a safe third country agreement. If that happens, you can be sure that Mike Pence will be called upon again to become the master of the details that Donald Trump just wants to go away.

The President himself underscored this supposition when he tweeted July 13 about four freshmen Democratic legislators with nonwhite backgrounds: they should just "go back home." In point of fact, only one of the four is foreign-born, and she, like the other three … like Mike Pence, is 100 percent American. Perhaps somewhere in the recesses of his Christian soul, Mike Pence knows this, too, but for now expect more steely resolve and dutiful lieutenant duty.