Mexico: Onset of Migration Crisis

Mexico: Onset of Migration Crisis

Over the past two decades, Mexico has made the transition from being a net exporter of migrants to the United States to a transit country primarily for migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador trying to reach the US border.

A changing relationship with migration

The reasons for this transition are numerous, and its effects on the US-Mexican relationship and Mexico’s immigration policy have been profound. Since the mid-2000s, with the encouragement of the United States, Mexico has taken an increasingly tough stance on migrants from Central America. Many analysts and NGOs have referred to this as the US’s ‘outsourcing’ of immigration enforcement to Mexico. 

Successive Mexican administrations have accepted money from the United States to strengthen controls on the Mexican-Guatemalan border and implement measures to encourage Central American migrants to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than continuing to the United States. In practice, this policy has made the journey tougher for many migrants and contributed to a culture of institutional harassment. There are frequent reports of migrants who are beaten or robbed by the Mexican authorities or who suffer mistreatment when trying to apply for asylum. However, the policy had been mostly ineffective in reducing the overall flow of migrants reaching the US border until this year. The situation has now changed. 

Migration in the Trump era

This situation changed when President Trump came into power in 2017 with the promise of much harsher immigration policy. The Trump administration at first implemented an unofficial system of placing daily limits on asylum seekers, leading to makeshift camps of migrants waiting to apply for asylum outside many ports of entry along the US-Mexican border. This situation continued through the end of 2018 when President López Obrador took office in Mexico. López Obrador had promised to end Mexico’s harsh treatment of migrants and instead focus on fighting the ‘root causes of migration’ with an Integrated Development Plan for Central America. 

However, just weeks after taking office, the López Obrador and Trump administrations signed an agreement to formalise the policy of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico called the ‘Migrant Protection Protocol.’ Under the new policy, once asylum seekers had made their initial applications in the United States, some would be sent to Mexico.  The López Obrador administration committed to finding them jobs and housing while their applications were processed (which can take between six months and two years.) 

In the first half of 2019, Mexico received 11,000 asylum seekers under the Migrant Protection Protocol. However, by the end of May, the Trump administration grew frustrated that the number of migrants arriving at the border was not falling. Trump negotiated a new deal with Mexico, using the threat of an across-the-board tariff on all Mexican imports to push the López Obrador administration to further action. Under the new agreement, the López Obrador administration deployed around 20,000 members of the National Guard (a new quasi-military body intended to fight organised crime) to the northern and southern border regions with the mandate to stop any migrants and “give them the option” of either applying for asylum in Mexico or being deported. 

Non-existent border infrastructure at the Mexican-Guatemalan border makes it nearly impossible for Mexican authorities to prevent migrants from entering the country by land. The administration also placed new travel restrictions on asylum seekers, forcing them to remain in the state where they applied for asylum. Additionally, Mexico agreed to vastly increase the number of asylum seekers it would accept under the Migrant Protection Protocol. At the same time, the Trump administration has implemented new rules to increase the number of asylum seekers; it can turn away at the border. 

A growing crisis

As a result of these policies, there are now massive, growing numbers of migrants waiting at Mexico’s northern and southern borders overwhelming authorities who cannot deal with a crisis of this scale. Just days after the administration announced its new deal with the Trump administration in June, the head of the Mexican immigration authority (INM) resigned saying that the country does not have the resources to meet the commitments it has made to the United States. 

At the northern border, the number of migrants returned under the Migrant Protection Protocol has more than quadrupled in three months from around 11,000 in June 2019 to over 42,000 as of October 2019. Despite promises by the López Obrador administration to help them find housing and jobs, many migrants are living in tent cities just outside the main border crossings in one of the most dangerous areas of the country. Shelters run by churches and NGOs are swamped and overwhelmed local mayors have accused the federal government of leaving them to shoulder the burden of the immigration crisis with no help and no real plan. Meanwhile, both frustrated migrants and border-city residents have begun holding public protests, in one case blocking the border crossing for an entire day.  

At Mexico’s southern border, there are currently around 65,000 migrants in border cities waiting on asylum applications. The authorities now can process approximately 6,000 asylum applications annually and already have a backlog of 50,000. By the end of 2019, the country is expected to receive around another 80,000 new asylum applications (up from 30,000 in 2018.) Due to travel restrictions, most new asylum seekers are located in the border city of Tapachula, which is now surrounded by thousands of National Guard troops to ensure that undocumented migrants do not leave the city. NGO groups have called the situation an “open-air prison,”, and the city has begun to see regular protests by migrants who say they are “trapped.” 

Risk outlook

So far, the growing migration crisis remains primarily limited to border regions where local governments are already struggling to find solutions. As the number of migrants stuck in limbo in these regions increases, the issue will begin to take a more significant role in the national political dialogue. Border city mayors have already started to demand further financial assistance from the federal government as well as the deployment of additional National Guard troops to help maintain security. 

The migration crisis could be the first issue to put a significant dent in President López Obrador’s overwhelmingly high approval ratings (which have remained at around 70-80% since he was elected). Polls show that the president’s handling of both migration issues and the US-Mexican relationship are among his administration’s least popular policies. If the growing migration crisis begins to cost López Obrador his political capital, it could have a significant effect on the 2021 congressional midterm elections. The president’s party hopes to gain a super-majority in both houses of Congress, which would allow him to amend the constitution.

In Conclusion

The migration crisis could prevent López Obrador from completing either of his main policy projects: implementing ‘austerity’ in the federal budget and deploying a new anti-crime strategy centred around the creation of the National Guard (a new quasi-military body aimed at fighting organised crime). Unlike in previous administrations, López Obrador has not secured additional financial support from the United States to implement its new immigration strategy. Additionally, the plan has required the repurposing of a significant portion of National Guard troops, who were not trained to deal with immigration issues.  

Despite these challenges, it is unlikely that President López Obrador would consider pulling out of his deal with the United States and risk the economic catastrophe that would result from an across-the-board US tariff on all Mexican imports. It is more likely that as the migration crisis worsens, he will seek to mitigate its effects to maintain his popularity and political capital. 

Categories: Central America, Security

About Author

Tyler Mattiace

Tyler Mattiace is a Senior Consultant at a political affairs firm in Mexico City. His areas of expertise are international trade policy, Mexican and Central American politics, and US-Latin American relations. He holds a master's degree in International Development from London School of Economics and a bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.