Last month, as the Biden administration struggled to manage the latest wave of migrants flooding the U.S. southern border, top U.S. immigration officials entered Mexico for an emergency meeting.
Sitting around a conference room in Ciudad Juárez, officials and their Mexican counterparts developed a 15-point plan to help defuse the flashpoint — most of it a checklist of actions for the Mexican government. Notably, according to a statement from Mexico’s federal immigration agency, Mexico agreed to carry out more costly expulsions of migrants gathered on its side of the border – a move that some said would deter disorderly crossings.
The moves, which also highlight Mexico’s efforts to combat the crush of migrants traveling north on railcars, are the latest in a series of policy changes in Mexico that have eased, albeit slightly, the massive bust -political headache in Washington eternally caused by migration. Analysts in both countries see a pragmatic agreement: As Mexico increasingly bears the brunt of U.S. immigration strategy, the Biden administration has granted rare leeway to the country’s popular but controversial leader.
“Mexico has real leverage in its relations with the United States. And right now that leverage is about migration,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Sharing nearly 2,000 miles of land border and a history of significant economic exchange, Mexico and the United States have long had closely aligned immigration policies that have adapted to changing international migration patterns. When George W. Bush made his first trip outside the United States as president in 2001, he visited the ranch of Vicente Fox, the Mexican leader, to discuss a new era of cooperation on border issues , such as trade, drugs and migration to the North. flow of Mexicans, who at the time constituted the majority of undocumented border crossers.
But while spiraling violence and desperate economic conditions have fueled years of mass migration from Central America and the Caribbean to the United States, overpowering the country’s legal admissions system, the portion of Mexican territory between both has become a critical “buffer state,” said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The southern border of Mexico was pretty much the southern border of the United States,” Meyer said.
Under pressure from several U.S. administrations, Mexico has repeatedly sent resources to its border with Guatemala over the past decade to formalize migration routes and has stopped record numbers of migrants at new checkpoints as they were heading north.
At the helm of the latest immigration coordination between Mexico and the United States is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing leader who in 2018 campaigned to resist the “dirty work” of the United States. United on migration. Since then, his political calculus has rapidly changed.
Under threat of crippling tariffs imposed by then-President Donald Trump, López Obrador agreed in 2019 to allow asylum seekers to wait for their applications to be processed inside Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, upsetting activists who said it forced migrants into dangerous living conditions.
During the pandemic, when the United States used a public health measure known as Title 42 to send many asylum seekers back to the border, López Obrador agreed to take in many migrants, reversing a long-standing position in the country and putting a strain on the country’s resources. Mexican border towns. In May, as the United States ended the use of Title 42, López Obrador continued to authorize returns for “humanitarian reasons.”
“I think these more recent measures really cross another line because it’s not just about stopping people from coming to the United States, which has been the most restrictive role,” Meyer said.
“It actually allows people who have been deported from the United States to stay in Mexico or, in this case, actively send them back to their country of origin for the United States,” she said.
Details on the eviction plan announced last month are limited. At a news conference Friday from Washington, Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena said Mexican authorities were operating six flights each week to return migrants to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Bárcena added that authorities were “exploring” the possibility of expanding returns to Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.
It is not clear where the deportation flights took place or when they began. It also could not be determined whether the returned migrants had previously been deported from the United States or had pending asylum applications. Stakeholders in Mexico told CNN last week that there appeared to be no significant change in the pace of repatriation flights in the north of the country.
A representative for Mexico’s federal immigration agency declined to provide further details about the deportations.
But this announcement may already have had the effect of discouraging migrants from crossing the border into the United States without having obtained the appointment required to request asylum. Over the weekend following the meeting, the number of migrants encountered by border officials entering the United States near El Paso, Texas, fell by about 30%, CNN reported.
Last Wednesday, López Obrador also announced that he planned to hold a summit in the coming days with officials from several Latin American and Caribbean countries “whose populations are migrating.” Mexico also agreed last month to urge countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba – which have limited diplomatic relations with the United States – to take back their citizens expelled at the border.
“What we are looking for is to reach an agreement to confront the migratory phenomenon by addressing its causes,” López Obrador said at a press conference. “We have to align.”
Recent cooperation between the two countries has been accompanied by a busy schedule of shuttle diplomacy. Last week, Bárcena held meetings in Washington with Senate leaders and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to Mexico this week with other cabinet secretaries and meet with López Obrador.
For Mexican negotiators, the country’s increased responsibilities have often been conditional on the United States’ commitment to increasing the means for migrants to enter the country legally, including through temporary work visas and a recently expanded humanitarian parole program that the Biden administration says has released tens of thousands of people. Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who meet certain requirements, including a local sponsor in the United States, to enter the country and obtain work authorization.
Last month, before the Mexican expulsions were announced, Mexico’s foreign minister told Bloomberg in an interview that the United States and Mexico were close to reaching an agreement with the United Nations to pre-screen dozens of thousands of migrants in Mexico before entering the United States under the law. parole programs. The United States has opened similar processing centers in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told CNN that the organization was “in regular contact with US and Mexican authorities, including on how we can support possible future initiatives.” “.
“Politically, the Mexican government cannot strengthen law enforcement without showing that it is also fighting for the well-being of migrants and for legal opportunities, since it is a country with a history of migration to United States”, selee. he said.
A free hand for Lopez Obrador?
Yet some analysts see a more cynical incentive behind this cooperation, arguing that the Biden administration has largely turned a blind eye to elements of López Obrador’s agenda that would have typically drawn reproach.
“López Obrador very quickly understood that if he gave in to Biden’s demand for support, he would have significant political capital to ensure that US pressure on a number of bilateral issues or Mexican domestic policy issues would be limited “, said Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican. ambassador to Washington who has criticized the current administration.
Critics point to democratic backsliding on a number of López Obrador’s positions: an attempt to reform the country’s independent electoral authority, frequent criticism of the judiciary and the press, and capitulation of powers of the State in matters of maintaining order and transport for the benefit of the army.
Electoral reform, passed earlier this year but then blocked by Mexico’s Supreme Court, diminished the independence of the country’s electoral authority, reducing its staff nationwide and limiting its autonomy ahead of the year’s presidential vote. next.
Tens of thousands of Mexicans marched in the capital against the policy, in the largest opposition demonstration of López Obrador’s presidency. Critics denounced it as a dangerous erosion of democratic institutions.
But in Washington, the Biden administration has been unusually discreet. In a statement following the February protests, Ned Price, a senior adviser to Blinken, described “a great debate on electoral reforms and the independence of electoral and judicial institutions that exemplifies Mexico’s vibrant democracy.”
“We respect the sovereignty of Mexico. We believe that an independent and well-resourced electoral system and respect for judicial independence support a healthy democracy,” Price said.
If Mexico had less leverage in its relations with the United States, “I think there would be greater public pressure from the State Department and the White House on the slippery slope of Democratic Erosion We See in Mexico,” Sarukhán. he said.
“I think the United States should invest in Mexico’s democratic strength, because otherwise, sooner or later you will have someone in Washington who will ask the question: ‘Who lost Mexico and why?’ ” he added.