Last month, as the Biden administration scrambled to manage the latest wave of migrants overflowing the U.S. southern border, top U.S. immigration officials crossed into Mexico for an emergency meeting.
Sitting around a Ciudad Juárez conference room, the officials and their Mexican counterparts drafted a 15-point plan to help defuse the flashpoint, largely 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 deportations of migrants gathering on its side of the border, a move that some believed would deter disorderly crossings.
The measures, which also spell out Mexican efforts to crack down on the crush of migrants traveling north in boxcars, are the latest in a series of policy changes in Mexico that have eased, albeit slightly, the enormous political headache in Washington. perennially caused by migration. Analysts in both countries see a pragmatic deal: As Mexico increasingly bears the brunt of the U.S. immigration strategy, the Biden administration has given rare leeway to the country’s divisive but popular leader.
“Mexico has a real influence in the relationship with the United States. And right now that influence revolves around 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 maintained intertwined immigration policies that adapted as international migration patterns changed. When George W. Bush made his first trip outside the United States as president in 2001, he went to the ranch of Vicente Fox, the Mexican leader, to discuss a new era of cooperation on border issues, such as trade, drugs and the north. . flow of Mexicans, who at that time made up the majority of undocumented border crossers.
But as spiraling violence and desperate economic conditions fueled years of mass migration from Central America and the Caribbean to the United States, dominating the country’s legal admission system, the swath of Mexican territory in between became a critical “buffer state.” “said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The southern border of Mexico was practically the southern border of the United States,” Meyer said.
Under pressure from several US administrations, Mexico has repeatedly sent resources to its border with Guatemala over the past 10 years to formalize migration routes and detained a record number of migrants at newly installed checkpoints as they headed north.
At the forefront of Mexico’s latest migration coordination with the United States has been President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing leader who in 2018 campaigned on resistance to doing the United States’ “dirty work” on migration. His political calculus has changed rapidly since then.
Under the threat of crippling tariffs from then-President Donald Trump, López Obrador agreed in 2019 to allow asylum seekers to wait for their claims inside Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, angering activists who said it forced migrants to live in dangerous living conditions.
During the pandemic, when the United States used a public health measure known as Title 42 to return many asylum seekers at the border, López Obrador agreed to take in many of the migrants, reversing a long-standing position in the country and overloading the resources from Mexico’s own border cities. In May, when the United States ended the use of Title 42, López Obrador continued to allow returns for “humanitarian reasons.”
“I think these most 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 important role in law enforcement,” Meyer said.
“It is actually allowing people deported from the United States to stay in Mexico or, in this case now, perhaps actively return them to their countries of origin for the United States,” he said.
Details about the deportation plan announced last month have been limited. At a news conference from Washington on Friday, Mexican Foreign Secretary Alicia Bárcena said Mexican authorities were conducting six flights each week to return migrants to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Bárcena added that officials were “exploring” the possibility of expanding returns to Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.
It was unclear where the deportation flights were taking place and when they began. It was also not possible to know if the returned migrants had already been deported from the United States or if they had pending asylum applications. Stakeholders in Mexico told CNN last week that there did not appear to be any significant change in the pace of repatriation flights in the north of the country.
A spokeswoman for Mexico’s federal immigration agency declined to provide further details about the deportations.
But the announcement may have already had the effect of deterring migrants from crossing into the United States without the required asylum appointment. In the weekend following the meeting, the number of migrants encountered by border authorities entering the United States near El Paso, Texas, fell by about 30%, CNN reported.
Last Wednesday, López Obrador also announced that he was planning a summit with officials from several Latin American and Caribbean countries “whose populations are migrating” that would be held in the coming days. Mexico also agreed last month to urge countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, which have limited diplomatic relations with the United States, to accept their citizens deported at the border.
“What we are seeking is to reach an agreement to confront the migration phenomenon by addressing the causes,” López Obrador said at a press conference. “We have to align.”
The 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 national security adviser. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to Mexico this week along 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 expanding the ways migrants can enter the country legally, such as through temporary work visas and a recently expanded humanitarian parole program. which, according to the Biden administration, has allowed tens of thousands of people. of Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who meet certain conditions, including a local sponsor in the US, to fly to the country and obtain work authorization.
Last month, before the announcement about the Mexican deportations, 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 conduct a pre-screening of dozens of thousands of immigrants in Mexico for entry to the United States under the 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 is “in regular contact with US and Mexican authorities, including about how we can provide support for possible future initiatives.”
“Politically for the Mexican government, they cannot do more enforcement without demonstrating that they are also fighting for the well-being of migrants and for legal opportunities, because it is a country with a history of migration to the United States,” Selee said. she said.
Meuse free for López Obrador?
Still, some analysts see a more cynical incentive behind the cooperation, arguing that the Biden administration has largely turned a blind eye to elements of López Obrador’s agenda that would normally have drawn rebukes.
“López Obrador understood very quickly that if he gave in to Biden’s request for support, he would have significant political capital to ensure that US pressure on a series of bilateral or domestic Mexican political issues was limited,” said Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican president. . ambassador in Washington who has been a critic of the current administration.
Detractors point to a democratic retreat in several of López Obrador’s positions: an attempt to reform the country’s independent electoral authority, frequent criticism of the judiciary and the press, and the capitulation of state powers in matters of surveillance and transport of the military.
The electoral reform, which was approved earlier this year but later blocked by Mexico’s Supreme Court, diminished the country’s independent electoral authority, cutting its workforce across the country and limiting its autonomy ahead of a presidential election next year. .
Tens of thousands of Mexicans marched toward the capital against the policy in the largest opposition protest of López Obrador’s presidency. Critics denounced it as a dangerous erosion of democratic institutions.
But in Washington, the Biden administration was unusually quiet. 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 illustrates Mexico’s vibrant democracy.”
“We respect the sovereignty of Mexico. We believe that an independent, well-resourced electoral system and respect for judicial independence support a healthy democracy,” Price said.
If Mexico had less influence in its relationship with the United States, “I think you would see greater public pressure from the State Department, from the White House, on the slippery slope of democratic erosion that we are seeing in Mexico,” Sarukhán said. . saying.
“I think the United States should invest in Mexico’s democratic strength because, if not, what we will have sooner or later in Washington is someone asking: ‘Who lost Mexico and why?’” he added.