Last month, US President Donald Trump’s administration railroaded Mexico into agreeing to take “unprecedented steps” to curb irregular migration and human trafficking across its borders. The deal – the implementation of which will be evaluated this month – is shameful for Mexico and the United States alike.
The discord over migration did not originate with Trump. In the summer of 2014, then-US President Barack Obama responded to a surge in unaccompanied minors reaching the US border by requesting that then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto send forces to Mexico’s border with Guatemala to stem the flow. Peña complied, though Mexico never received anything in exchange, and the number of migrants reaching the border declined.
But the tensions escalated significantly under the Trump administration, not least because, by late 2017, the number of migrants reaching the US border was again skyrocketing. In early 2018, the US was reportedly apprehending some 50,000 migrants – especially from Central America, but also from Cuba and Africa – per month, compared to about 20,000 per month in 2015-2016.
Trump’s own attempts at solutions had little impact. His promised border wall remains far from built. His policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border was met with such an outcry that he had to reverse it, though children continue to be kept in appalling conditions. Mass deportations proved a weak deterrent as well.
For a president who won his position partly on the promise to slash immigration at all costs, this was excruciating. But it became truly intolerable this year, when arrivals again soared yet again, with the US authorities encountering or arresting over 144,000 migrants on the Mexican border in May alone, a 32% increase over April.
This surge is blamed partly on Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who announced before taking office last December that he would pursue an “open arms” migrant policy, including expedited, year-long humanitarian visas and virtually unimpeded movement through the country. Though few visas were actually issued, the promise was enough to convince tens of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, and others to set off for Mexico – and then head north.
Even before AMLO was inaugurated, Trump was pressuring him to do more to support the US in its immigration fight. Under the “Remain in Mexico” deal – concluded in November 2018 by Trump’s administration and AMLO’s incoming government – Central American asylum seekers who reached the US would be returned to Mexico to await their hearing before an American official.
But the more than 15,000 asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico between January and May of this year, and Mexico’s cancellation in January of its humanitarian visa program, were far from enough for Trump. By May, Trump was threatening to impose 5% tariffs on all imports from Mexico – to rise as high as 25% by October – if AMLO’s government did not do much more. And, early last month, Mexico acquiesced to virtually all of Trump’s demands.
Already, AMLO’s administration has taken significant steps to satisfy Trump. Mexico deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to 11 “choke-points” near the border with Guatemala, in order to detain and eventually deport as many migrants as possible. It dispatched another 15,000 troops to the northern border, to deter those migrants who do make it that far from entering the US without proper documents.
AMLO’s government also opened at least two additional points of entry – for a total of five – through which US authorities can return asylum seekers awaiting their hearing, and decided to admit many more “returned” migrants per day, from around 20 at each entry point to up to 200. And it has reportedly agreed that, if migration does not decrease significantly within 45 days, it will accept “safe third country” status, meaning that Central Americans in Mexico will be allowed to request asylum only in that country – not in the US.
Many observers in Mexico, including members of the ruling coalition, have criticized AMLO’s actions, arguing that he would have been better off accepting the first 5% tariff hike, and even the second one. In time, they assert, intensifying opposition within the US would probably have forced Trump to back down. Mexico could even have helped this process along by imposing retaliatory tariffs on exports from select, electorally sensitive US states. And it could have appealed the US tariff decision at the World Trade Organization.
None of these actions would have been painless. But the costs would have been lower than those of the current approach, which, among other things, has dealt a powerful blow to human rights in Mexico.
Mexico’s security forces do not know how to interrogate migrants or determine their legal status while respecting their basic rights. It can, after all, be very difficult to distinguish between locals and Central American migrants. And while major bus companies have agreed – again, at the behest of the Trump administration – to request identification from their passengers, Mexico lacks a national identity card, and its citizens are not legally obliged to carry any documentation. This puts the government in uncharted legal territory.
Moreover, Mexican security forces are not trained to manage migrant detention centers effectively. And, in fact, conditions at those centers are so poor that they invite comparisons with the internment camps in Vichy France that housed refugees from occupied Europe in the 1940s. This is morally indefensible, and it could have long-term consequences for Mexicans themselves, because Mexico is also a source country for migrants. Mexico can hardly denounce American deportations of undocumented Mexicans or condemn Trump’s border wall while treating Central American migrants so poorly.
For now, however, Mexico’s government is firmly ensnared in Trump’s trap. If it is going to extricate itself, it will have to start fighting back now.
(Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000-2003, is Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.)