By Frank Jack Daniel and Julio-Cesar Chavez
MEXICO CITY/EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - The United States has doubled the number of asylum seekers it sends back each day to Mexico from El Paso, Texas, a Mexican immigration official said on Friday, in the first sign of action following a deal struck to avert U.S. tariffs last week.
Luis Carlos Cano, a spokesman for Mexico's national immigration agency in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, said starting Thursday some 200 asylum seekers per day were being sent back, up from 100 previously.
Under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexico agreed on June 7 to expand the program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or 'Remain in Mexico,' which forces mostly Central American asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. southern border to await the outcome of their U.S. asylum claims in Mexico.
Remain in Mexico currently operates in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ciudad Juarez. Close to 12,000 people have been returned to Mexico since it began in January.
However, Mexico has not accepted that the United States send it an unlimited number of asylum seekers, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said, ahead of planned meetings with U.S. officials on Friday to determine details of the expansion.
"Today there is a meeting with U.S. authorities, to learn, to discuss the ports of entry and how the number will be measured, because Mexico has not accepted that it be undetermined," Ebrard said at a news conference.
The agreement has put Mexican officials under mounting pressure to deliver results. The head of Mexico's National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, resigned on Friday for "personal reasons," an interior ministry official said.
'SAFE THIRD COUNTRY'
If enforcement measures are not successful after 45 days, Mexico has also agreed to consider making itself a "safe third country." Asylum seekers who first set foot on Mexican soil would have to apply for refugee status in Mexico instead of in the United States.
Mexico's government on Friday published the section of the joint accord which said Mexico would examine any changes to its legislation necessary to permit a safe third country arrangement to come into force 90 days after June 7.
The document also stated that such an agreement was intended to be "part of a regional approach to burden-sharing" in processing migrants' asylum claims.
Ebrard said this week that if Mexico could not stem the flow of people, a regional system should be established to bind in other countries crossed by migrants en route to the United States, including Guatemala, Panama and Brazil.
A rights group in Guatemala on Friday lashed out at the proposal to make asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador seek refuge in Guatemala, when its own citizens were fleeing poverty and violence.
Trump confirmed the deal included the safe third country plan if Mexico did not do enough to cut migration.
Asked in a Fox News interview if that possibility was part of the accord, Trump said, "It's exactly right, and that's what's going to happen."
Trump also named Tom Homan as "Border Czar."
Homan is a veteran of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and served as the agency's acting head during the first year of Trump's presidency. He retired last year, after increasing arrests of non-criminal immigrants.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City and Julio Cesar-Chavez in El Paso; additional reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey in Washington and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Rosalba O'Brien)