In truth, Mexico is aggressive in enforcing U.S. immigration policy. In 2014 President Enrique Peña Nieto implemented a robust deterrence effort, the Southern Border Program, to deter migration across Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
Between 2014 and 2015, Mexican deportations of Central Americans traveling to the U.S. – primarily Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans – more than doubled, from 78,733 in 2013 to 176,726 in 2015. During the same period, U.S. border agents detained half as many Central American migrants at the border.
That compliant attitude is about to change. Mexicans elect their next president – and 18,000 other elected officials, from mayors all the way up to senators – on Sunday, July 1. It is the biggest and most expensive election in Mexico’s history. And Trump’s draconian new immigration policies, which include detaining children and criminally prosecuting migrants, have taken center stage in the presidential race.
López Obrador launched his presidential bid on April 1 with a rally in Ciudad Juárez, the northern Mexico city where thousands of migrants cross into the U.S. each year. In a fiery speech, López Obrador promisedthat, with him as president, Mexico would reassert itself as a “free, sovereign and independent” nation and would not be the “piñata” of any foreign power.
An early critic of President Peña Nieto’s Southern Border Program, López Obrador has accused the Mexican government of committing human rights violations in its persecution and deportations of Central American migrants.
On his watch, Mexico would still “pay special attention” to its southern border, López Obrador says, but it would no longer do Trump’s “dirty work.” López Obrador wants Mexico to respect existing laws that protect the human rights of migrants and guarantee that asylum-seekers can find refuge in its borders.
Ricardo Anaya, the right-of-center second-place candidate, has also attacked President Peña Nieto’s policy of detaining and deporting Central American migrants. Anaya says his country must be a “moral authority” on immigration, treating Central Americans in Mexico as justly and humanely as Mexican immigrants would like to be treated in the U.S.
The changing face of migration
Illegal immigration to the U.S. has changed radically over the past two decades.
Central Americans, driven by endemic violence and pervasive poverty, now make up a bulk of all peoplecaught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2017, U.S. Border Patrol agents there arrested 303,916 migrants. Just over half of them – 162,891 people – were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
It is also, increasingly, their final destination. Mexico saw 12,700 asylum requests from Central American refugees, up from 8,800 in 2016 and 3,400 in 2015. Only the U.S. received more Central American asylum-seekers, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The high cost of appeasing Trump
In 2016, Peña Nieto’s advisers invited both U.S. presidential candidates to visit Mexico.
In a joint press conference on Aug. 31, 2016, Peña Nieto emphasized his country’s contribution to U.S. immigration enforcement. The border, Peña Nieto said, represents a “shared challenge” and a “great humanitarian crisis.”
Peña Nieto never recovered from this diplomatic disaster. According to the newspaper El Universal, 88 percent of Mexican citizens were offended by Trump’s visit – and by Peña Nieto’s polite, submissivebehavior. The Mexican president’s approval rating plunged to below 25 percent and never bounced back.
Another Mexican revolution
López Obrador, a savvy career politician, has benefited from Peña Nieto’s mistake.
Juárez is not just a border city – it’s a symbolic place in Mexican history. It was the bulwark where Mexico’s only indigenous president, Benito Juárez, in 1867 fought back a French invasion and re-established a sovereign Mexican government. Juárez is also the city where the Mexican Revolution basically began, in 1910.