Mexico has its own immigration crisis

Mexico is detaining children too.
Mexico is detaining children too.
Image: Reuters/Jose Cabezas
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Just like Donald Trump, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is struggling to manage an immigration crisis.

In recent months, Mexico has been overwhelmed by the same wave of Central American asylum seekers outstripping American immigration authorities’ resources at the southern US border.  Many in Mexico are headed to the US, but others are choosing to stay there.

The influx, along with pressure from the US, has López Obrador flip-flopping on campaign promises of protecting immigrants, many of them women and children. This week, Mexican authorities raided a migrant caravan in southern Mexico, rounding up stroller-pushing families and forcefully stuffing them into vans. Nearly 400 were detained.

It’s unclear whether the tougher tactics—which may appease Trump—will curb the Central American exodus. The jump in asylum applications in Mexico, in addition to the US’s own soaring load, highlight the regional nature of the problem. Any solutions will likely have to tackle its roots: extreme violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

A rush for asylum

AMLO, as López Obrador is known, vowed to break with his predecessor’s focus on detaining migrants, and instead focus on ensuring their human rights are respected. Former president Enrique Peña Nieto rolled out an aggressive immigration enforcement program in 2014, after Barack Obama enlisted Mexico to help with a surge of asylum seekers at the US border.

The number of immigrants requesting asylum in the US is much higher now. Defensive asylum applications, those filed by immigrants who have been detained by US authorities, have grown by 260% since 2014.

The Trump administration blames outdated US immigration laws for the increase, saying applicants are taking advantage of protections that bar detention of children for long periods of time. The enormous backlog means that asylum seekers are often released until a judge can hear their case. That can often stretch years. It’s one factor creating incentives for others in Central America to make the same trip north, experts say. Instead of stemming the flow, Trump’s own policies may have increased it.

The steep rise in asylum requests in Mexico, a place that’s not particularly safe for immigrants, shows once again that Central Americans have real causes to flee. The number of applications filed in the first nine months of 2018 were 700% higher than in all of 2014, though in absolute numbers, they remain much lower than those filed in the US.

The AMLO approach

AMLO, who took office in December, started out his term by granting more temporary humanitarian visas.

As more immigrants come, he’s having to navigate Trump’s wrath and border policies, as well as Mexico’s own budding immigration debate. Some Mexicans are starting to sound like American immigration hawks, complaining that AMLO should take care of Mexicans first. They also blame his more benign rhetoric towards migrants for encouraging more to come.

After dropping when AMLO took office, immigrant detentions are rising again.

AMLO said the recent raid does not contradict his commitment to protect migrants, which includes registering them and identifying human smugglers traveling with them. The head of Mexico’s immigration agency said federal police had to intervene when migrants with that caravan refused to register (link in Spanish) for visitor visas and acted violently.

While AMLO rejiggers his immigration policy, there are few concrete plans to address the reasons immigrants keep coming to the US and Mexico. In fact, the Trump administration last month announced it’s cutting aid to Central America. This week, members of the US House Committee on Foreign Relations, including members of the president’s Republican party, urged him to reconsider.

“Ending assistance to Central America outright will not achieve the Trump Administration’s stated objective of curbing migration,” they wrote in a letter to secretary of state Mike Pompeo. “We believe it will exacerbate the problems facing these countries.”