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Mexico’s Faustian Border Bargain With the US Will Unravel

CIUDAD ACUNA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 23: Mexican state police deploy at the bank of the Rio Grande to stop migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on September 23, 2021, in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. Mexican police surrounded a small migrant camp on the Mexican side of the river, and immigration officials asked migrants to relocate to a shelter further away from the border. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) (Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images North America)

(The second of a three-part series on immigration. The first is “Biden’s Venezuelan Migrant Deal Won’t Fix the Border.”)

When the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the new deal to help the US keep Venezuelan migrants on Mexico’s side of the border, the first number on the press release was about what he got in exchange: 65,000 additional visas for temporary workers. Of these, 25,000 were reserved for people from Central America and Haiti; Mexicans would get the rest.

That sort of sums up Mexico’s willingness to ease the political pressure exerted on the Biden administration by hundreds of thousands of prospective migrants massing at the southwestern border: First, show me the money.

If former President Donald Trump’s threat of trade sanctions cowed López Obrador (known as AMLO) into containing Central Americans seeking asylum in the US – housing thousands in border towns and deploying the National Guard to stop more on their way across Mexico – Biden’s reluctance to play the heavy puts him in a weaker position. He has to bring something worthwhile to the table.

This quid pro quo approach presents a problem, not just for the broader relations between the US and Mexico. The slapdash immigration policies born of such barter will come back to bite the Mexican government too. And they will hurt hundreds of thousands of people across the Americas pushed out of their countries by climate change, authoritarianism and economic stagnation, seeking asylum and opportunity to the north.

Foreigners moving across Mexico toward the US are way down the list of AMLO’s political priorities. The issue has nowhere near the salience that immigration has in the US, where stories about an overwhelmed border helped Republicans in their likely takeover of the House. For the Mexican president, it carries nothing like the political risks and opportunities associated with the millions of Mexican immigrants in the US who, along with their friends and families, make up a substantial voting base. 

With little riding on the issue, López Obrador decided to take a page from T​​rump’s transactional approach to diplomacy and leverage migrants to serve other items on his agenda. 

Consider the US complaint against AMLO’s protectionist energy policies. Washington has a solid case, experts believe: Mexico’s decision to favor its state-run energy companies seems a straightforward breach of the USMCA agreement signed by the two countries and Canada in 2018. Never mind that it also will impose higher energy costs on Mexico’s consumers and businesses.

Carla Hills, who as trade representative in the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated most of NAFTA, the USMCA’s predecessor, is pretty sure the Biden administration will take Mexico to court. “The US and Canada will not sit back on this,” she said.

And yet, so far, the Biden administration hasn’t. Observers on both sides of the border note this is not unrelated to AMLO’s control over one valve regulating the political pressure bearing down on his compeer in Washington. 

“Basically, it’s migration,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister and harsh critic of the Mexican president. “Biden needs AMLO to accept the Venezuelans, and the only way to do that is to get off his back.” 

Castañeda has warned that immigration’s stranglehold over the Biden administration is stifling US policy toward Mexico, leading Washington to turn a blind eye toward the deepening authoritarianism and militarization south of the border, developments it would normally care about. 

But with growing numbers of Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, Colombians, Nicaraguans and even Indians marching across Mexico, often getting stuck there after they fail to enter the US, the Faustian pact on immigration is bound to come under pressure. 

Asylum seekers sent to Mexico have been abused by both authorities and criminal groups. Mexico hasn’t developed the capacity to integrate or, alternatively, repatriate the many Venezuelans stuck in its territory, unable to enter the US. “Migrants have no sustainable opportunity to remain in Mexico,” said Ariel Ruiz of the Migration Policy Institute. 

Indeed, the mishandling of the tens of thousands of Haitians that arrived at Mexico’s southern border en route to the US in 2021 (or which Mexico accepted from the US in another deal with the Biden administration) underscored the threadbare nature of its migration institutions.

Many Mexicans may be sympathetic to migrants. They often have personal experience as undocumented workers in the US, or have friends and relatives sending money from north of the border. But unlike in the United States,  in Mexico immigrants are still a rarity. Less than 1% of its population was born abroad. 

Mexicans are unlikely to appreciate migration that appears chaotic and uncontrolled. When caravans of Central Americans swept into Tijuana in 2018 locals didn’t all receive them with open arms. Many wanted them to go home. A change in AMLO’s political calculus would not be surprising if migration pressures do not abate soon. “If there are Venezuelans under the bridges in Tijuana or people in Matamoros start killing migrants the political pressure will increase,” Ruiz said.

If and when the political winds shift, the government in Mexico City, like that in Washington, would do well to take migration dynamics much more seriously and develop a more thoughtful strategy – one that both countries, and perhaps others, like Canada and Costa Rica, should develop together.

Some principles should apply. For starters, not everybody can or should end up in the United States. A more reasonable regional system with distributed country quotas would help ease the pressure on all. Pressure should be taken off borders by standardizing application procedures in prospective migrants’ home countries and their immediate neighbors. And these transparent, congruent asylum criteria should be buttressed with clear paths for economic migration.

Even this system is unlikely to meet the ever-growing demand for safe harbor and a job by migrants across the Americas. But it will do a better job than bartering thousands of Venezuelans against a bad energy policy.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Immigration’s Burden Doesn’t Fall on a Handful of Red States: Eduardo Porter

• More Soldiers Won’t Curb Mexico’s Rampant Violence: Shannon O’Neil

• The Time Is Now for a Deal on the Dreamers: Editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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