As his administration began implementing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy last month, a frustrated President Donald Trump cast blame on the government of Mexico for the influx of Central Americans arriving at the border.
“They do nothing to stop people from going through Mexico, from Honduras and all these other countries,” he told supporters at a campaign rally in Nashville at the end of May. “They do nothing to help us.”
In reality, Mexico has ramped up its immigration enforcement activity in ways that would surprise most Americans. Since 2014, when it embarked on an ambitious plan to crack down on its own southern border, Mexico has deported far more Central American migrants than the United States: More than half a million compared to about 350,000.
Mexico has increasingly militarized its own southern border, setting up a network of highway checkpoints and police and military patrols throughout its border states and built up one of the world’s largest systems of immigrant detention facilities, which last year held nearly 200,000 migrants, trailing only the United States and Saudi Arabia.
More recently, outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto has agreed to work with the United States on a policy prize the Trump administration has long coveted: A so-called “safe third country” arrangement that would allow the U.S. to prevent Central Americanasylum seekers from entering the United States and instead force them to file for asylum in Mexico.
The controversial plan has received renewed interest in the United States in the wake of the national uproar over family separation at the border.
As Pena Nieto’s six-year term ends however, foreign policy experts say Mexico’s July 1 election will bring uncertainty to the safe third country negotiations.
“This administration has been particularly willing to make deals to keep the peace with the U.S.,” said Andrew Selee, President of the Migration Policy Institute. “But that period may be about to end.”
Whoever Mexico chooses as its next president on July 1 is likely to be far less willing to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue of Central American migration.
The front-runner is a left-leaning nationalist with evangelical ties who has called for an end to doing the U.S.’s “dirty work” on immigration enforcement. Last year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador lodged an official complaint against Trump with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over his administration’s treatment of migrants.
“One can imagine, especially with the base that López Obrador has, that they will have a very different approach and not seek to do the bidding of the U.S. administration on issues like these,” said Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Asylum cases swamp Mexican government
The question of asylum will loom large for Mexico’s next administration. As the U.S. has made it increasingly difficult to win asylum, even going so far as to separate family members in hopes of discouraging asylum requests, petitions in Mexico have increased nearly tenfold since 2014.
Yet the Mexican agency that handles asylum remains severely underfunded and Mexican human rights officials worried earlier this year that it is on the verge of collapse.
Even as the number of Central Americans requesting asylum jumped from 1,296 in 2013 to 14,596 in 2017, the agency’s spending has decreased since 2015 from about $27 million pesos to $18 million pesos, according to Mexican federal budget expenditure reports.
“Whoever wins, we don’t have hope that anything will change,” one agency official told the El País newspaper in May. “We are overwhelmed because despite the strong increase in refugees, our budget hasn’t increased in two years. We are a tiny part of the Interior Ministry and we barely matter.”
Against this grim backdrop, U.S. and Mexican officials are negotiating the “safe third country” agreement, which could expand dramatically the number of Central American asylum seekers in Mexico. Under the agreement, the U.S. could send asylum seekers back to Mexico to file their requests, which can take years.
Word of the potential agreeement was leaked by disgruntled Mexican officials, who last month told the news magazine Proceso that it would come in exchange for favorable terms on Mexican trade in the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation.
“It is shameful that we are even sitting down and negotiating this demand from President Trump,” an anonymous Mexican official told the magazine. “”Our country will be converted into a kind of migratory filter for the United States.”
And migrant advocates say it’s a stretch to call Mexico a safe haven for Central American migrants: by some counts, more than 70,000 Central Americans have gone missing in the last decade trying to cross the country; many are believed to have been killed or kidnapped by organized crime groups.
Support growing for ‘safe third country’ agreement?
Following the recent outcry over Trump’s practice of separating families at the border, Laredo Democrat U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar this week announced he was open to such an agreement, which Mexican officials have said was first floated by Obama. “Unfortunately, President Trump is not the best advocate for Mexico,” Cuellar said at a news conference this week.
Two Republican immigration bills would unilaterally declare Mexico a safe third country, a move that the Migration Policy Institute warned would create a “diplomatic row.”
A program to force asylum seekers to await the results of their case in Mexico would represent a major victory for Trump, who has made tamping down the number of Central American asylum seekers a pillar of his immigration policy.
But it would likely cause the number of migrants seeking asylum from Mexico to increase even further, as U.S. immigration judges apply stricter standards enacted by the Trump administration.
“For Mexico to accept that status would be on the assumption that almost all would be denied and Mexico would have to deal with them,” said Ivan Briscoe, Latin America program director for the International Crisis Group. “It’s possibly something to be discussed in the future between López Obrador and the U.S., but would only be accepted if Mexico were given a big financial contribution.”
López Obrador hasn’t weighed in directly on the issue, but the leader of his political party in the Mexican Senate has raised concerns, saying in May the agreement would “generate important pressures on governability and jobs.”
Briscoe said López Obrador is far less committed to maintaining the NAFTA-oriented export economy that Peña Nieto is trying to save in ongoing renegotiations, potentially removing an incentive for him to embrace such an agreement.
2014 surge of unaccompanied children spurred change
The dramatic arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children in the Rio Grande Valley in the summer of 2014 marked a defining moment for immigration enforcement on both sides of the border.
In Texas, the surge fueled a dramatic increase in state spending — $1.6 billion since 2015 — for border enforcement efforts. The influx also sparked the construction of several new detention centers in the U.S, including two large family detention centers in Texas.
In Mexico, pressure from the Obama administration translated into the Plan Frontera Sur, or the southern border plan.
Previously, the border between Mexico and Guatemala had been more or less wide open: migrants crossed the Suchiate River on inflated innertubes in plain sight of Mexican military and customs officials. And while migrants were the frequent target of Mexican police seeking bribes, agents with Mexico’s version of the U.S. Border Patrol, the National Migration Institute, weren’t allowed to carry weapons and focused more on aiding migrants than making arrests.
The plan had an immediate impact, as Mexico began to arrest and deport Central Americans in unprecedented numbers. In 2013, Mexico deported about 80,000 Central Americans; two years later, the number jumped to 180,000, according to numbers from Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior.
Since 2015, Mexico has deported twice as many Central Americans as the United States.
Critics say Mexico’s plan has militarized border communities and pushed migrants into increasingly remote and dangerous routes, making them easier targets for criminal groups.
Enrique Vidal Olasco, a lawyer with the Mexico-based migrant advocacy group Voces Mesoamericanos, said the network of checkpoints and buildup of law enforcement in southern Mexico is “very similar to what you see in the south of Texas.”
The rapid buildup of enforcement came with a rise in complaints of human rights abuses, especially regarding Mexico’s growing network of immigration detention centers.
Asylum-seeking families separated in Mexico, too
Mexico provides little information publicly about its detention centers., Officials with the National Migration Institute did not respond to requests for even basic information like how many centers it operates or how many migrants pass through the doors.
But inspection reports from a coalition of civil organizations paint a picture of overcrowded, unsanitary facilities, in some cases converted homes, schools and half-built structures that are “inappropriate to house people,” and where legal rights of migrants are routinely violated.
According to the Citizen Council of the National Immigration Institute, Mexico housed 627,433 migrants in its detention centers from 2013 to 2017, the vast majority Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
In many cases, centers lack lighting, ventilation and drinkable water, and surveys show that two of every three migrants exhibit signs of severe depression. Civil oversight groups that inspect the Mexican detention centers say extortion of family members by immigration officials is common.
Mexico has followed an unwritten policy of separating some older Central American children from their parents during the detention process. As the Trump administration began to mull taking similar steps last year, Mexico had already made family separations part of “daily practice,” according to a 2017 report by a council of academics and nonprofits that made numerous inspections of detention facilities.
In some cases, children are forced to live in adult detention facilities because of the lack of shelters or family detention space.
For example, while as many as 23,000 children passed through detention centers in the southern border city of Tapachula in 2015, the city’s children’s shelters have room for just 64 minors at a time.
The report found that officials with the National Migration Institute routinely use the threat of lengthy detention stays to try to keep migrants from seeking asylum.
Clues to López Obrador’s stance
While López Obrador hasn’t given many specifics regarding his plans for Mexico’s growing detention center system, or the financially hobbled asylum agency, he has left some clues: he has proposed moving the headquarters of country’s National Migration Institute, which manages detention and deportations, from the southern border to Tijuana, which experts say could signal a shift from enforcement to aiding Mexico’s own deported citizens.
And his pick to lead the Interior Ministry, should he win, has promised to shift the immigration institute’s emphasis away from enforcement, which she said “deprives migrants of their liberty.”
“We want this to be a sanctuary country,” Olga Sánchez Cordero said on the campaign trail. “Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the only one who can change the conditions for migrants in this country.”