In late May, after issuing public comments and tweets criticizing the Mexican government, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose a five percent tariff on imports from Mexico if the country did not step up its efforts to prevent illegal migration to the United States. Mexico, fearing the economic impact of a tariff, immediately moved to address Trump’s concerns. On June 7, the two countries released a joint statement in which Mexico promised to “take unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration.” The United States, in turn, dropped the threat of tariffs and promised to accelerate its processing of asylum claims while stepping up its development efforts in Mexico and Central America.

Critics lambasted Trump for threatening tariffs against the United States’ southern neighbor—Senator John Cornyn of Texas, normally a supporter of the administration, claimed that “We’re holding a gun to our own heads” because of the impact that the tariffs would have on the U.S. economy. Yet there was a kernel of truth in Trump’s exaggerated assertion that Mexico was doing “NOTHING” on migration policy. Mexican governments have rarely spent much time thinking about migration, much less developing a coherent policy to manage it. After all, Mexico has historically been a country of out-migration—a country that people wanted to leave, not to journey to or even through. But as Mexicans have stopped leaving their country over the past decade, migrants from elsewhere—particularly Central Americans attempting to reach the United States—have flowed through and to Mexico in ever greater numbers. So far in the first nine months of this fiscal year (between October 2018 and May 2019), 444,309 Central Americans have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border, almost double the 223,564 apprehended in all 12 months of fiscal year 2018, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Over 80 percent of those apprehended are families with children or minors traveling alone.

As it happens, the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, may be the first in recent years to have tried to seriously grapple with migration. During his campaign, López Obrador called for a policy based on respect for the rights of migrants that would help create legal pathways for them to stay in Mexico while also investing in Central America to address the root causes of migration.

The Mexican government, however, has now largely shelved these plans, as negotiations with the United States over Central American migration have changed political realities. The López Obrador administration has adopted an enforcement-first approach to migration, just as previous Mexican administrations have done when faced with pressure from Washington. It’s a radical shift for a government that once wanted greater openness to Central American migrants.

Yet in the long run, López Obrador will likely find that he had the right initial idea. The enforcement-only measures that Trump is pushing offer a partial and temporary solution to the building pressure of Central American migration; sustained relief will come only through a comprehensive approach much like the one López Obrador had once imagined. The trick will be to make such an approach compatible with reality by modernizing Mexico’s immigration agencies and recognizing that legal pathways and development efforts cannot succeed without a serious commitment to border control, something missing from his initial plan.

Central American migrants crossing the Rio Bravo into the United States, June 2019
Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters


For all his campaign talk of treating migrants differently than his predecessors did, López Obrador has become almost solely focused on enforcing Mexico’s borders. Since the beginning of 2019, Mexico has detained and deported historically high numbers of people. In May alone, more than 23,000 migrants were apprehended and more than 15,000 deported, roughly twice the 10,350 apprehended and 8,697 deported in May 2018. Mexico has also sent 6,000 National Guard members, along with elements of its army and navy, to the southern border to back up its woefully underfunded migration authorities. Perhaps most notably, as part of a program dubiously called the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), the Mexican government has been readmitting Central Americans to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings in the United States. The program began in December and is now being ramped up significantly.

The Mexican government agreed to these measures, on June 7, as a way of avoiding the tariffs that Trump had threatened. The two governments further agreed that if unauthorized migration does not drop in the first 45 days after the agreement was signed, they would start negotiations on a Safe Third Country Agreement, which would require asylum seekers to request asylum in the first country they cross into. This would make Mexico responsible for handling asylum applications from nationals of other countries that pass through their territory, although it is possible that Guatemala and other countries might join such an agreement as well.

After having initially promised a less heavy-handed approach, the López Obrador administration now struggles to explain its emphasis on enforcement to a public that was expecting a softer treatment of migrants. There is, of course, no inherent contradiction between creating legal pathways for migration and controlling the border. In fact, any serious attempt to liberalize immigration policy will require clear rules and enforcement, and any modern enforcement strategy must take pressure off the border by creating legal opportunities for entry. Yet Mexican authorities have had trouble reconciling their rhetoric with reality and explaining how the various elements of their policy add up to a single, coherent whole. In their public statements they have zigzagged from one extreme to the other, often sounding like any migrant is welcome and later sounding like they are closing the border for good. On June 20, for instance, López Obrador said, “We need to see the migrant as someone seeking to improve his well-being ... who is risking everything to reduce his hunger and poverty, and we have to be in solidarity.” This came only a day after his new migration commissioner, the former head of prisons, criticized the “permeability” of Mexico’s border and pledged to close it down.

A comprehensive response to the migration crisis could begin with the reform of the asylum systems in both the United States and Mexico.

These mixed messages to some extent reflect Mexico’s difficult position on migration, since the country is subject to forces it doesn’t fully control and can at best hope to manage. Mexico is caught, on one side, between Guatemala and Honduras—countries that people are anxious to leave because of chronic violence, poverty, and political unrest, which have only worsened as the political climate in both countries has deteriorated—and on the other, the United States, the country that most Central Americans want to reach. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s highly publicized and largely failed attempts to secure the U.S.-Mexican border, including its now-abandoned policy of separating migrant children from their parents, have actually had the unintended effect of spurring further migration by showing how easy it is for Central American families to stay in the United States by making a claim for asylum and then staying in the country for years while their claim is processed. Human smugglers have exploited this information, and offered new routes, tiers of service, and even credit plans to would-be migrants, making their journey to the United States more feasible than ever before.

The agreement to throw more resources at enforcement in Mexico will probably slow unauthorized migration for a few months, and it certainly defused a crisis that could have damaged both the U.S. and Mexican economies. But the agreement hardly offers a permanent solution. That is because an approach based on enforcement will only ever be partly effective in preventing migration if it does not address the root causes of migration and offer some ways for migrants to enter the country legally.  


A comprehensive response to the migration crisis could begin with the reform of the asylum systems in both the United States and Mexico. Both countries are overwhelmed by the recent surge in cases. The Mexican government could take some of the pressure off of the U.S. border by granting asylum to Central Americans who need protection from violence, a small but important percentage of those crossing through Mexico. Last year alone, Mexico received almost 30,000 applications for asylum, roughly ten times more than in 2015, and this year it is on track to receive over 60,000. Yet Mexico’s asylum agency, COMAR, which has an annual budget of $1.3 million, no longer has the capacity to adjudicate these cases in a reasonable period of time. Although Mexico is hardly a safe country for all migrants fleeing violence, it is safe enough for many who would be happy to stay in the first country they reach if they could get their cases heard in a timely manner.

The U.S. asylum system is even more swamped. In 2018, more than 92,000 people applied for asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border, and that number is set to increase significantly this year. Immigration courts generally take two to three years to rule on these cases, leading some people to apply for asylum whether or not they have strong cases and then disappear into the general population while they wait on a hearing. The Trump administration could streamline this system by allowing asylum officers to make decisions on asylum cases instead of sending these cases to the asylum courts, a measure that is permitted under U.S. law and that would allow for a decision to be made in a few weeks instead of a few years. This simple change, combined with greater access to asylum in Mexico, would allow the United States and Mexico to ensure that those fleeing persecution get the protection they need while quickly returning those who don’t qualify to their countries of origin, thus discouraging future flows.

Fixing the U.S. and Mexican asylum systems would have a far greater deterrent effect than expanding the MPP or signing a Safe Third Country Agreement while also giving a fair hearing to those who genuinely need protection. Indeed, experience from around the world suggests that efforts to use these kinds of international agreements to outsource asylum systems usually fail, since they are politically complicated and labor-intensive to implement. Individual countries, on the other hand, can quickly and easily make changes to their own asylum processes.

López Obrador, for his part, has a real opportunity to reshape Mexico’s immigration policy in a manner faithful to his original principles yet responsive to realities on the ground. He should start by modernizing Mexico’s immigration infrastructure and policy. The country’s current immigration agency, the National Immigration Institute, is woefully underfunded and riddled with corruption. Agents must be paid better and provided with new equipment and technology, while those who are in the pocket of migrant smugglers must be laid off. López Obrador should also follow through on his earlier proposal to create employment-based visas for Central Americans, which would allow them to come work in parts of Mexico with labor shortages as an alternative to migrating to the United States. Enforcement always works better when people have real alternatives to illegal migration. Only when it provides such alternatives will the Mexican government stand a chance of sustaining its efforts at border control.

For now, the Mexican government will also need to step up its efforts to help the migrants it currently hosts. The recent agreement between Mexico and the United States to increase the number of Central Americans returned to Mexico via the MPP will leave tens of thousands of migrants living in Mexican border communities while they await their asylum hearings. The Mexican federal government needs to help the border towns provide migrants with housing, health care, and public services, or risk a major backlash from local communities that will end up having to provide these services on their own.

A U.S. CBP agent at the border in Mission, Texas, July 2019
Loren Elliott / Reuters


López Obrador has emphasized, rightly, that migration from Central America will continue unless the international community invests in the region’s public security and development. He has even proposed a $30 billion aid package for Central American countries to help stem migration. Having tried—and largely failed—to convince the Trump administration to take this need more seriously, López Obrador should now to appeal to Canada, the European Union, and other international donors. It is unclear if they will be as interested in the fate of Central America as the United States and Mexico should be, but López Obrador has already announced his intention to meet with representatives of 19 countries to discuss his development plan.

Of course, outside actors can only do so much to guarantee security and economic growth in countries whose governments have failed to do so. Much of what the U.S., Mexican, and other governments can do is what citizens in those countries haven’t been able to: hold national governments accountable for fighting corruption, ensuring public security, and investing in local development.

The June agreement between the United States and Mexico is a stopgap. Actually reducing the flow of Central American migrants north will require a much more sophisticated and comprehensive approach. The Trump administration, which has privileged enforcement over other tactics, is unlikely to develop such an approach, although there is a chance it may recognize the need to fix the U.S. asylum system. The López Obrador administration may have a better chance, but it will need to find a coherent balance among its competing priorities of border control, legal migration, asylum protections, and investment in Central American development. Only then will it be able to reconcile its migration principles with reality.

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