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[MEXICO CITY] Mexico gave a cool reception to visiting senior US officials due to a controversy over deportations of illegal immigrants, with one minister playing down the chances that a planned meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday will go ahead.
The US government is seeking to deport many illegal immigrants to Mexico if they entered the United States from there, regardless of their nationality, prompting a fiery response from Mexican officials.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray on Wednesday called the measures "unilateral" and "unprecedented". The new US immigration guidelines are likely to top the agenda of meetings in Mexico City with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
They are the latest point of tension between the two neighbours, which have also been at odds over US President Donald Trump's vow to build a wall on the border and his attempts to browbeat Mexico into giving concessions on trade.
Mexican Economy Minister Idelfonso Guajardo said a meeting on Thursday between the US dignitaries and Pena Nieto at the Los Pinos presidential residence, which the Department of Homeland Security previously announced, depended on the substance of the talks. "The meeting at (Los) Pinos will happen, if it happens, in the context of the agreements they reach," and if there are clear messages to be sent through the envoys, Mr Guajardo told Foro TV.
As the US officials visited Mexico's foreign ministry, a small group of protesters shouted slogans outside, holding banners that said "The secretaries are not welcome," and "Stop Donald Trump, Hate, Racism, Ignorance." Pena Nieto pulled out of a planned summit with Mr Trump in Washington last month because of disagreement over the Republicans' effort to build a border wall to stem illegal immigration.
Mr Trump himself said the US officials' visit would not be easy. "That's going to be a tough trip. Because we have to be treated fairly by Mexico. That's going to be a tough trip," Mr Trump said at a meeting of business leaders in the White House in which he said the US trade deficit with Mexico was US$70 billion. "And that doesn't include the drugs that pour across the border like water," he said, praising Mr Kelly for a "military operation" to chase "really bad dudes" out of the country.
The latest public US data shows a US$60 billion goods trade deficit with Mexico in 2016. Some 40 percent of Mexican exports to the United States contain US made parts, economists say.
Other Washington officials tried to downplay the tensions.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on the eve of the meetings that the US relationship with Mexico was "phenomenal" and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made conciliatory comments on trade. Mr Kelly and Mr Tillerson dined with Mr Videgaray and Mexico's defense chief on Wednesday night.
Mexico relies heavily on exports to its neighbour. But stakes are also high for the United States, not least because Mexico has warned a breakdown in relations could affect extensive cooperation on the fight against narcotics and on stemming the flow of Central American migrants that reach the US border.
Mexico plans to seek more information on Mr Trump's executive orders on Thursday and raise the issue of illegal weapons that flow south across the border, according to notes from a senior official that outlines Mexico's planned talking points at the meeting.
As part of its response to the new deportation measures, Mr Videgaray said Mexico's foreign ministry would get involved in legal cases in the United States where it considered the rights of Mexicans had been violated.
The visit, which includes meetings military, finance and interior officials, will focus on border security, law enforcement and trade, according to the state department.
Slapping tariffs on US goods would be a "plan B" for Mexico if renegotiations over a new mutually-beneficial trade deal fail, minister Guajardo said ahead of the talks.
He said he expected North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations with both the United States and Canada to begin this summer and conclude by the end of this year.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said on Thursday he did not see any changes to Nafta in the short-term "I think there's a win-win result for us and Mexico on this. We've got to do things that are good for us and good for them," Mr Mnuchin said on Fox Business Network.
But hopes for a thawing in relations remain dim. "The relationship... is at such a historic low that it would be wishful thinking to assume that new concrete agenda items to advance will come at this point," Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Economic Growth Initiative said.