Immigration talks

Moderator Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Jorge Guajardo, Jeh Johnson and Julián Aguilar about trade and immigration talks with Mexico on Friday during the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Through back-to-back sessions exploring the relationship between the United States and Mexico at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, the message was consistent: The countries’ relationship is likely to become increasingly strained.

Journalist Julián Aguilar sat on both panels. A first-generation American, he works for the Texas Tribune and lives in El Paso, where he routinely reports on issues of legal and illegal migration. He said it is not fair to call the border situation a “crisis” in reference to people entering the country illegally.

“I don’t ever feel unsafe in my hometown,” Aguilar said. 

But when it comes to humanitarian issues, either as people seeking asylum await processing by the United States, or try to fast-track the process by sneaking in, it’s another story, he said.

“In El Paso alone this year there have been nine bodies pulled from canals,” he said.

“There are always folks that succumb to the heat and the elements.”

Part of the problem, according to Aguilar, is that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is not set up to handle medical or social services for asylum seekers, especially children and families.

“The processing centers were built and designed in the 1980s and ’90s for single adult males,” he said. “In border patrol’s defense they’ve been saying this for a really long time.”

Garrett Graff, executive director of the cybersecurity and technology program for The Aspen Institute, joined Aguilar in conversation for a session titled “Straight Talk from the U.S. Southern Border.”

“It’s striking how many failures of U.S. government you can see in a single day,” Graff said of his visits to the border.

Graff said that while building a border wall is the single most identifiable policy of President Trump, he thinks the president may have underestimated the complexity of the regulations directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Nuance is not one of the president’s policy strengths,” Graff said. “The number of people that ICE deports is set in advance, and it’s set by Congress [so there] is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the actual execution of ICE.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Jeh Johnson, the U.S. secretary of homeland security from 2013 to 2017 under the Obama administration.

“Immigration was candidate Trump’s signature issue, [and] he likes to give out grades. [So on immigration] in every respect he is getting an F,” he said.

Johnson spoke on a panel along with Aguilar and Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, titled “No One Wants an Angry Neighbor: The Risks of Making Mexico Mad.”

The panel was moderated by National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly, who asked about Trump’s recent threat of imposing tariffs on Mexico, followed by his backpedaling on the issue.

“The latest wrinkle is the threat to slap tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico does more to stop people from crossing the border,” said Kelly.

Guajardo said that, growing up in Mexico, children are taught from an early age that the United States stole half their country, and for most of his upbringing the sentiment was that America was the bad guy. He said trade agreements such as NAFTA then switched that narrative, and America became a partner, not an adversary. That relationship is slipping, though.

“I think it is going to get worse,” said Guajardo.

He said Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made a concerted effort to focus on domestic issues and not take the bait that Trump routinely sends through tweets.

“It must be frustrating for President Trump,” said Guajardo. “I think there is nothing worse to hate someone and not be hated back.” 

Trump backed off of the tariff threats when López Obrado agreed to expand the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which keeps those waiting for asylum out of the country until their hearing is approved. But Mexico doesn’t have the capacity to contain and protect the growing number of migrants waiting for their hearings, Guajardo said. And López Obrado has to consider the county’s reputation, and avoid accusations of being a puppet for Trump’s plans.

“I don’t think Mexico should be the wall for the United States and that’s what’s happening,” Guajardo said.

“We are OK cooperating,” explained Guajardo. But “we are not OK doing Trump’s bidding if he thinks the way of getting it is humiliating and embarrassing us.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, Aguilar sees a system that can’t handle the influx of children and families it is faced with. He said there are currently 600 children in holding that the United States has said they don’t believe will ever be able to reconnect with their parents who got separated or deported while crossing into the country.

“It breaks my heart, that’s the only way I can say it,” Aguilar said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at or on Twitter @alycinwonder.