Why you should care
The Trump administration wants to keep southern migrants out. But Mexico, under its new president, is opening up its door to those escaping violence and poverty.
When the first major caravan of migrants from Central America — mostly Hondurans — arrived at Mexico’s southern border in October 2018, they were met by riot police, sent by then-President Enrique Peña Nieto. But when thousands more migrants who were part of a different caravan lined up on the Guatemalan side of Mexico’s southern limit in mid-January, they got a very different welcome: expedited humanitarian visas issued in a matter of days instead of several months, giving them the right to travel and work legally in Mexico.
That shift is the outcome of what was among the first policy moves of Mexico’s recently installed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — widely known by his initials, AMLO — who took office in December. For the past four years, the country effectively did the U.S. government’s dirty work by stepping up the deportation of unauthorized migrants in Mexico. Now, even as American President Donald Trump continues to vilify migrants from south of the U.S.–Mexico border and stick to his mission to secure funding to extend the border wall, Mexico is changing direction.
The waves upon waves of migrants from countries to the south include many people escaping violent gangs and grinding poverty back home. The expedited humanitarian visas give them that shelter and the opportunity to earn a livelihood in Mexico. Unlike the past, when they were detained at the border, they’re now receiving asylum. Central American migrants are responding positively, says Silvia Garduño, public information officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency in Mexico (known as UNHCR), queueing up for their documents instead of trying to cross the border illegally through the Suchiate River that runs along the Mexico-Guatemala border. These policy and behavioral changes are showing up in the numbers too.
This is something that has never happened before.
Silvia Garduño, UNHCR
More foreigners — largely from Central America — were registered in Mexico during January than during the whole of 2017, and more than between January and November 2018. In just the last two weeks of January, Mexican authorities registered 12,000 foreign nationals at the border and issued approximately 4,000 humanitarian visitor cards, says Garduño.
“This is something that has never happened before,” she says.
The new approach is not a return to times when the Mexican authorities largely just turned a blind eye to the Central American migrants riding the trains (known as La Bestia, or the Beast) across the country toward its northern border with the U.S. But it is more humanitarian than the Frontera Sur Plan (Southern Border Plan) created by AMLO’s predecessor, Peña Nieto, in 2014.
Under pressure from the administration of Barack Obama — after a wave of underage and unaccompanied migrants arrived at the U.S.–Mexico border — immigration officials began pulling migrants from the trains and arresting them on the road and at the resting hostels that dot the migrant trail. Mexico has expelled more than 600,000 migrants since then, mostly to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and human-rights abuses reported by migrants in Mexico surged.
For now, the expedition of visas for migrants in Mexico at the country’s southern border with Guatemala has stopped. Migrants now need to approach the Mexican embassies in their country. At a media conference in late January, Tonatiuh Guillén López, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM is its Spanish acronym), said that the government was establishing “new channels and processes.”
But AMLO has been clear: He wants to keep migrants passing through Mexico in Mexico by making legal permission to live, work and get asylum easier. While many of those traversing the country may continue to want to reach the U.S., Mexico’s more welcoming stance might prove an attraction for others.
The Mexican president has also appealed to the U.S. and Canada to join Mexico in investing more in development programs in southern Mexico as well as the Northern Triangle countries that are the source of so many of the migrants. His choice of people to oversee his new administration’s approach to the migrant question is significant too. Guillén at the INM is an academic who wants to overhaul the institution and reset its slow, sometimes nasty reputation. Another state body — the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) — is now being headed by Andrés Ramírez Silva, who comes from the UNHCR. He oversaw the creation of an “Attention to Migrants” program in Baja California during his first week in office.
“Taken at face value, they do seem to be doing some things that are distinctly different … and in some ways presenting it as a win-win, not just for Mexico generally, but also for the private sector and the migrants [so] they can find or be helped in making contact with employment,” says Eric Olson, a security expert at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program. There is also some political gain behind the move, says Olson. AMLO and his team, he says, are “looking to differentiate themselves” from the Peña Nieto government and from Trump “by portraying themselves as humanitarians, concerned about the well-being of migrants from Central America,” rather than viewing migrants as a security threat.
A news report on Guatemalan migrants at the Mexico border, where their entry is being fast-tracked.
But AMLO’s approach carries its risks. Although public discourse between AMLO and Trump has so far been respectful and positive, Mexico’s new policy contrasts starkly with Trump’s. AMLO’s move to expedite permission to live and work in Mexico for migrants could encourage more to come — a fact that threatens to create tensions at home as well as north of the border, because some of those migrants could just be passing through toward the U.S.
Within Mexico, locals in Tijuana have opposed migrant camps — historically, Mexicans haven’t been overwhelmingly welcoming to those coming from south of the border. Promises by the Mexican president to offer jobs to those arriving could also provoke problems. Many Mexicans would argue that the government should focus on creating jobs for them, not foreigners, in a market where employment opportunities are already short.
There are also questions around the practicality of AMLO’s new immigration plan. “How do you keep track of all these people, how do you ensure they’re not being victimized by coyotes and also at the U.S. border, where the ‘remain in Mexico’ policy is most strong?” asks Olson. Many migrants, especially women and children, may not be easily employable, he points out, and housing, clothing, feeding and educating them will prove a challenge. “In my mind, AMLO seems to have led with his heart but not his brain here.”
The months, and maybe years, ahead will show how true to his promises AMLO will be. For now, the divide between the leaders of the U.S. and Mexico on immigration is sharpening — even without the wall Trump wants to build to separate them.