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Tensions in US-Mexico relations are at a high not seen in decades

Trump has railed against Mexico and NAFTA

Washington CNN  — 

Mexico is pushing back against the Trump administration’s new immigration directives that could have dramatic implications for the United States’ southern neighbor, as top US officials come to visit the country.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said his country is worried about recent actions that could greatly expand US deportations of undocumented immigrants, including sending non-Mexicans to Mexico.

“I want to make it clear, in the most emphatic way, that the Mexican government and the people of Mexico do not have to accept measures unilaterally imposed on a government by another government,” Videgaray said.

He spoke just hours before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly arrived in Mexico for meetings on security, immigration, trade and the border with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and other officials, the bulk of which take place on Thursday.

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies have cranked up the tension in US-Mexico relations to a high not seen in decades. He’s blamed the country for sending rapists into the US, castigated undocumented immigrants from across the border and blasted Mexico for what he says are unfair trade practices. One of Trump’s first actions as president was to order the construction of a border wall that he insists Mexico will pay for, despite the country’s repeated refusals.

RELATED: Huge stakes for Trump immigration do-over

On Tuesday, the Trump administration issued guidance on deportations that could apply to every undocumented immigrant in the US and enable state and local law enforcement to act as immigration officers.

Another change to asylum procedures would make it easier for immigration officers to send non-Mexican migrants to Mexico if they came through the country on their way to the US. The change could potentially send tens of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence, gangs and drug cartels back into Mexico, an issue Kelly and Tillerson will almost certainly have to address.

A Mexican official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, said that Pena Nieto, Videgaray and other officials will make clear to Kelly and Tillerson that Mexico will not take deportees who are not Mexican nationals.

A second Mexican official emphasized that Mexico is not bound by a US presidential order and said there’s nothing the US can do to force the issue. This official pointed out that there is no bilateral agreement between the US and Mexico on having to take these immigrants.

This official said that for more than two years, Mexico has been stopping Central American migrants before they reach the US – and added that this is one of the pieces of leverage they have. If Trump doesn’t stop these “orders,” it will make it more difficult for Mexico to continue this cooperation, the official said. 

Speaking in Guatemala Wednesday ahead of his visit to Mexico, Kelly said the President has authorized DHS to “protect and gain control” of US borders and “emphasized the mission of intercepting irregular immigrants from many countries on our borders, treat them humanely and return them to their countries of origin as fast as possible.”

He also said that Trump has authorized more resources – detention facilities, border patrol agents and construction of a physical barrier “where it makes sense.”

The first Mexican official said that his country’s senior leaders want to see a demonstration of “the respect that the relationship deserves, built over decades.”

They’re also be looking for acknowledgment that Mexico is one of the US’s biggest trading partners, on which millions of jobs depend, and that the US “is lucky to have such good neighbors.”

Tillerson and Kelly will be bringing exactly that message, according to administration officials who briefed reporters about the visit anonymously. Tillerson, who expressed respect for Mexico in his Senate confirmation hearing and who met with Videgaray on February 2, his first day on the job, will build on that initial conversation, a State Department official said.

“We expect the visit to be forward-looking and to discuss ways to strengthen our cooperation in order to advance the security and economic well-being of our two peoples,” the official said. Tillerson’s visit will be “the first in what we envision will be a close, ongoing working relationship with Mexico.”

Asked about the tensions between Mexico and the US, the State Department official responded, “We have a long history of cooperation,” and referred to a phone call between Trump and Pena Nieto.

“The two presidents reiterated their desire to continue to build upon that in the phone conversation, acknowledging that we have some differences on specific issues,” the official continued.

And asked about Trump’s insistence on Mexico covering the cost of the wall, the official said that “we have a clear difference on the payment issue but agree that we need to work these differences out.”

Trump has ordered all his Cabinet agencies to inform him of the total direct and indirect aid the US gives Mexico, a move that some see as an attempt to amass some leverage in the debate over the wall.

The first Mexican official said that Tillerson and Kelly will receive a clear message to take back to Washington: Mexico will not pay for the wall’s construction.

Anger about that proposal is just one factor fueling consumer boycotts of US brands and goods in Mexico, where lawmakers have introduced a bill to stop buying US corn. Mexicans staged massive anti-US protests Sunday, forming human chains along the border where Trump would like to build a wall. Peña Nieto already canceled a trip to Washington to meet with Trump in apparent frustration over the new US leader’s proposals and rhetoric.

That anger will complicate Tillerson and Kelly’s meetings with Peña Nieto, Mexican ministers and military officials. The trip is meant to allow the new US Cabinet members to establish relationships and coordinate on bilateral issues that range from counterterrorism, border security, immigration and trade that amounts to $1.5 billion a day. But the secretaries make their debut under a cloud.

RELATED: Trump sets stage for mass deportations

“Today’s rhetoric is forcing Mexicans everywhere to question the unquestionable: Did the country make a mistake 25 years ago by betting its future on North America?” asked Peter Schecter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. “No relationship is perfect, and there is much to develop and improve in Mexico. But by ostracizing our neighbor, we are in imminent danger of dismantling the North American experiment we’ve built over the last 20-plus years.”

In a reflection of how broad the US-Mexico relationship is, Tillerson and Kelly will meet with the Mexican ministers of Interior, Foreign Relations, Finance, National Defense and Navy.

The trip to Mexico City will represent the first known high-level meetings between the US and Mexican officials since Peña Nieto canceled a visit to Washington on January 27 after Trump declared that there was no point in his coming if Mexico wouldn’t agree to pay for a border wall.

“Unless Mexico will treat the US fairly, with respect, such a meeting is fruitless, and I want to go a different route,” Trump told GOP lawmakers at a retreat in Philadelphia. “I have no choice.”

He went on to say that “border security is a serious, serious issue and a national problem. Most illegal immigration is coming from our southern border.”

The issue of illegal immigration was a major campaign theme for Trump, who framed it as an economic and security challenge threatening the US. One of his first acts as president was to sign two executive orders for construction of a US-Mexico border wall and increasing the number of border patrol officers and immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations.

During the campaign, Trump went to Mexico City to meet Peña Nieto and said he discussed the wall but not who would pay for it – a claim the Mexican president disputed. Peña Nieto took to Twitter after the meeting to say that “I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”

Still, the meeting was a political debacle for the Mexican leader, and the nationalist backlash against Trump is bolstering the political fortunes of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who Schecter noted now leads national polls on the 2018 election.

Trump has also railed against Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has described in tweets as “a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers … of jobs and companies lost” that has created a trade deficit. He has repeatedly said he wants to renegotiate the deal, which many experts agree wouldn’t be a bad thing, given that it was originally written at a time when intellectual property, the Internet and e-commerce weren’t major economic drivers.

Schecter pointed out that the economies of the three NAFTA countries – the US, Canada and Mexico – are so intertwined that cross-border production chains “mean 40 cents’ worth and 25 cents’ worth of every dollar we import from Mexico and Canada, respectively, is US content.”

“President Trump is right, NAFTA should be updated,” said Schecter. “But not in an atmosphere of recrimination.”

CNN’s Leyla Santiago contributed to this story.