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U.S. Supreme Court order on asylum seekers 'astonishing,' says Mexico's foreign minister

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Thursday that Mexico's government doesn't agree with an "astonishing" U.S. Supreme Court order that would block migrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada from applying for asylum at U.S. borders.

Court cases challenging policy continue, but Mexico says impact in the meantime will be significant

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, seen earlier this week in Washington, criticized what he characterized as 'hardline' U.S. immigration policies. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Thursday that Mexico's government doesn't agree with an "astonishing" U.S. Supreme Court order that would block migrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada from applying for asylum at U.S. borders.

Speaking at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's daily news conference, Ebrard said that Mexico has a different policy when it comes to asylum seekers and would never implement such a rule.

"Our policy of refuge, of asylum, is a tradition in Mexico," he said.

"The United States has a very hardline immigration policy," Ebrard continued. "The court's decision is astonishing in the impact that it is going to have."

Ebrard declined to explain that impact, saying that he had various meetings scheduled Thursday to try to evaluate what effects the court's decision will have on Mexico. But the ruling is likely to drive more Central American migrants to try to illegally enter the United States with the help of smugglers or move them to apply for asylum in Mexico, which is already swamped with applications.

Mexico has long resisted a so-called safe third country agreement with the U.S. that would require migrants to request asylum there first, while advocates for asylum seekers point to Mexico's homicide rate and cartel violence as reasons why the country doesn't qualify as a safe third country.

But the court's decision, which came with only two dissents, appears to have unilaterally brought about the same result.

The justices' order late Wednesday temporarily undoes a lower court ruling that had blocked the new asylum policy in some states along the southern border. In addition to Central Americans being largely ineligible under the new rule, asylum seekers from Africa, Asia and South America who arrive regularly at the southern border would also seemingly be barred.

In this April 29 photo, Cuban migrants are escorted by Mexican immigration officials in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as they cross the Paso del Norte International bridge to be processed as asylum seekers on the U.S. side of the border. The U.S. Supreme Court order would block the vast majority of migrants from so-called third countries from applying for asylum at U.S. borders. (Christian Torres/The Associated Press)

The shift reverses decades of U.S. policy. The administration has said that it wants to close the gap between an initial asylum screening that most people pass and a final decision on asylum that most people do not win.

The high court action allows the Republican administration to impose the new policy everywhere while court cases challenging the policy continue. It's unclear how quickly the policy will be rolled out and how exactly it fits in with the other efforts by the administration to restrict border crossings and tighten asylum rules.

For example, thousands of people are waiting on lists at border crossings in Mexico to claim asylum in the U.S. And acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said Thursday that 45,000 people have been turned back to Mexico to wait out their asylum claims.

Threat of tariffs has receded

Asylum seekers must pass an initial screening called a "credible fear" interview, a hurdle that a vast majority clear. Under the new policy, they would fail the test unless they sought asylum in at least one country they travelled through and were denied. They would be placed in fast-track deportation proceedings and flown to their home countries at U.S. expense.

The American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is representing immigrant advocacy groups in the case, Lee Gelernt, said: "This is just a temporary step, and we're hopeful we'll prevail at the end of the day. The lives of thousands of families are at stake."

On Thursday, López Obrador said that he spoke by phone with President Donald Trump a day prior, noting the U.S. president recognized Mexico's efforts and that relations between the two countries were very good.

He also said things were looking better for the ratification of a new free trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

"There are no deep differences, there's no discrepancy, nothing that could lead them to take measures or apply measures that affect the economy, the development of our country," López Obrador said. "On the contrary, there's a very favourable environment for the United States Congress … unbeatable conditions to approve the free trade treaty."

His conciliatory approach contrasts sharply with a tack taken earlier this year by Trump, who tied immigration to economic policy by threatening crippling tariffs on all Mexican imports.

Following Trump's threat, Mexico cracked down on migrants crossing the country, deployed the National Guard to the southern and northern borders, and tried to contain migrants to the southern part of the country.

It also accepted the expansion of the "Remain in Mexico" policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, under which the U.S. has sent thousands of asylum applicants back across the border to wait in Mexico.

Mexico announced Friday that it had reduced the flow of migrants arriving at its northern border by 56 per cent in three months, and it has said that it is beginning to invest in the Central American countries responsible for the majority of the migrants.

But leftist López Obrador's increasingly hardline immigration policies have attracted criticism at home and abroad.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said this week she was concerned that immigration policies implemented in Mexico, the U.S. and some Central American countries "are putting migrants at heightened risk of human rights violations and abuses."

Asked about her comments Thursday, Ebrard said Mexico also had concerns and had requested a meeting with her office to exchange information.

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