Mexico’s Migration Dilemmas

The Border Crisis South of the Border

A member of the Mexican National Guard near the U.S.-Mexican border, July 2019 Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

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

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