Why you should care
Can President Obrador handle the influx of children along the southern Mexican border better than his American counterpart?
Mahikol’s appearance masks the weekslong journey he has undertaken to get to the border town of Tapachula in southern Mexico. The 12-year-old’s skin is clear and clean, and he is letting his Afro grow longer on top, with the back and sides shaved. He wears a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Mahikol’s mouth smiles, but his eyes do not.
He’s one of the thousands of migrant children who are entering Mexico in unprecedented numbers from Central America. But his destination isn’t the U.S., where President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency along the border with Mexico and has fought off allegations of mistreating children — many of whom were separated from their parents. Mahikol and many other children are in Mexico to stay. That’s forcing the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) to quickly adapt to tackle a growing child migrant crisis in a way that allows him to present himself as the antidote to Trump on migration.
An estimated 7,409 children applied for asylum in Mexico last year, most of them more interested in applying in the U.S., say the country’s authorities. But in the first four months of 2019 alone, 5,542 children have applied, according to figures from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR). Of those, 213 unaccompanied children arrived between January and April, compared to 356 for the whole of 2018. A 10-year old migrant girl from Guatemala died in government custody on May 16, a first under AMLO.
Things are getting very complicated.
Alma Delia Cruz, head of Mexico’s refugee commission
Now, his government is scrambling to cope, creating new protocols to avoid further fatalities and to ensure that children like Mahikol don’t suffer the fate of their counterparts at the U.S. border. The country has never had to face such a crisis, and so until now, has never had a formal policy to address a flood of child migrants. But learning from the Trump administration’s experience, multiple Mexican government agencies this month put together a new “pathway for migrant children” that emphasizes that officials must not detain children, must not deport them, and must keep families together. The rules also include plans to create new shelters and spaces in foster home networks to deal with the record numbers of children coming in.
In the border city of Tapachula in Mexico’s south, the challenges Mexican authorities will face are evident. Babies and young children lie sleeping on the bare ground in the central plaza wearing nothing but nappies in the tropical heat of Mexico’s south as their parents sit around waiting, hoping for help.
“Things are getting very complicated,” says Alma Delia Cruz, the Tapachula head of COMAR.
The crisis wasn’t one AMLO was prepared for when in January, soon after he took office, he expedited applications for asylum. Faced with an unprecedented flood of migrants now looking to stay in Mexico — instead of trekking to the U.S. border — the country’s federal government has pulled back. The application process, which in January took thousands of migrants just a few days, now takes at least three months, if not six, and the National Institute of Migration is relying more heavily on two different temporary visas that let migrants live and work just on the border or in the states surrounding it. AMLO has also cut COMAR’s budget by 20 percent, from 25 million pesos ($1.3 million) to 20 million pesos ($1 million).
But that’s not stopping thousands of migrants, many of them with kids, from crossing the Suchiate River separating Mexico from Guatemala. Unable to avoid the child migrant crisis that Trump faced, AMLO finds himself forced to find solutions different from the controversial ones his northern counterpart has adopted.
Officials close to Mexico’s new procedures say the “pathway” will include norms ensuring that if families are detained without the right immigration papers, at least one parent will remain with their children in government shelters or foster homes. Children will not be detained with any other adult family members in migrant detention centers as they are processed. Families will not be separated by deportation, unlike what has happened at the U.S. border, according to administration officials who requested anonymity as the protocols are still being finalized.
All that’s easier said than done, though. Mahikol’s guardian Angel Mendoza says they were both detained for a month. “The challenge now is setting up these alternative care spaces so the kids aren’t staying in migrant detentions centers,” says Dora Giusti, chief of child protection at UNICEF Mexico. “At the moment, it’s not possible to have all the children [at existing shelters].” UNICEF, says Giusti, is working with the Mexican federal social services agency, DIF, to build open-door shelters and foster homes. She commends the moves taken by AMLO’s government so far and adds that her agency is also expanding and recruiting new people to deal with the new numbers.
So far, young Mahikol has been the grateful recipient of some fresh clothes and a shower, courtesy of locals. That may not be much, but he’s already better off than he was back home in Honduras. “The gang wanted to get me in, but my papa didn’t want me to, and they said that they were going to kill us both,” says Mahikol. The “gang” is the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of the two main street gangs that control vast swaths of Central American cities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and is a major factor — alongside poverty and climate change — driving people north.
But child migrants are still hugely at risk in Mexico. Apart from disease and sickness, children on the migrant trail are also particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse, kidnapping and even murder, say parents and guardians. “It’s the children that they go after more than anything,” says Mendoza, referring to organized crime. “The mafia here in Mexico will snatch them right out of your arms.”
The next few months will be crucial in determining whether AMLO’s government will prove itself capable of implementing its new strategy to protect the most vulnerable migrants in its territory. In an immigration system famed for inefficiency and a lack of transparency, there’s no guarantee of success. But there’s much at stake — for thousands of desperate children and their families, and for AMLO and his efforts to carve out a legacy distinct from Trump’s.