López Obrador unleashed an unprecedented militarized crackdown on Central American travelers, blocking their caravans, rounding up families and allowing U.S. authorities to return non-Mexican border-crossers to Mexico for the first time.
President-elect Joe Biden could face a difficult test at the border as soon as he takes office. He has pledged to revoke the Migration Protection Protocols that Trump used to bounce border-crossers back into Mexico, but Biden has not indicated how he might handle a new influx of tens of thousands of migrants trying to enter the country. With Central America’s economies hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and several powerful hurricanes this year, the elements of a new crisis are gathering.
Biden will need Mexico to continue to help prevent such a surge in the short term, said Earl Anthony Wayne, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Barack Obama. Wayne said the United States also will need to partner with other countries on medium- and long-term solutions to improve conditions in Central America and the treatment of migrants in Mexico and the United States.
“Biden will not have an easy set of choices, but I think he will try to thread the needle between a more humanitarian approach and a need to avoid getting overwhelmed,” said Wayne, who teaches at American University. “What he can do is try to forge a more effective partnership with Mexico to see the common value of dealing with this in an orderly way, and not letting it get out of hand.”
Some of the things Biden’s supporters want — an expanded capacity to process asylum applications and humanitarian claims at the border, for example — are unlikely to win funding from a divided Congress, Wayne noted. He said Biden’s team “will have to shift policies while getting ready for what could be a new storm coming."
Senior Mexican officials said that their government is looking to return to more conventional relations under Biden, and that they expect a U.S. partner that is more willing to put money and muscle behind proposals championed by López Obrador that focus on job creation and investment in Central America.
But Mexican officials have private concerns that any moves to revoke Trump’s enforcement mechanisms too quickly could have a dam-bursting effect at their southern border, unleashing pent-up demand from desperate Central Americans.
“Our southern border was a mess, and it’s under control now,” said a senior Mexican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to discuss potential relations with the United States under the Biden administration.
What Central America needs right now is direct financial aid, the official said, adding: “They can’t wait for private investment to arrive.”
López Obrador has declined to weigh in on migration or any aspect of U.S.-Mexico relations under Biden, saying only that Mexican leaders “must be respectful and not intervene until the Americans resolve their issues.”
Current and former Mexican officials say they do not think Mexico’s aggressive response to caravans of migrants will change under the Biden administration, in part because of the Mexican government’s priorities.
“We still need migration to be orderly,” said another senior Mexican official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because López Obrador has not yet acknowledged Biden as president-elect. “We can’t just have an endless stream of unidentified people transiting through the country with no authorization.”
In its response to the Trump administration’s demands, Mexico made several key changes to its immigration policies, some of which may not be rolled back under Biden’s presidency.
One of the most significant shifts was López Obrador’s decision to deploy the country’s National Guard to stop migrants from entering and transiting through Mexico. Under the threat of U.S. tariffs, López Obrador, who as a candidate preached the importance of migrants’ rights, quickly filled the country’s rudimentary immigration detention facilities with Central Americans bound for the United States. The National Guard’s migration-related duties are now enshrined in the legal responsibilities of the force.
Critics of López Obrador’s immigration policy have lambasted Mexico for “turning into Trump’s wall.” But the major changes to immigration enforcement have had little political cost for López Obrador, even as human rights groups have decried some of the consequences.
“The fact is that Mexico aligned its immigration policy to Trump’s plans to close the United States to immigration and asylum,” Tonatiuh Guillén López said when he resigned as Mexico’s immigration chief in 2019.
In 2019, for example, Mexico detained more than 50,000 child migrants — up 82 percent from 2018. After significant pressure, Mexico agreed in November not to hold children in immigration detention centers.
Guillen said he thinks the National Guard’s role will remain the same “at least for the next year, until the political map is redefined.” But he’s hopeful that a Biden administration will support Mexico’s plan to invest in Central America, creating jobs to deter migration. Guillen had advocated for that investment, which Trump officials resisted.
“We had many meetings, but very few results,” Guillen said.
At the Trump administration’s insistence, Guatemalan and Honduran security forces also have stepped up their migration enforcement. When the last migrant caravan left Honduras in late September, many of those migrants were detained in Guatemala. The Honduran government took a strong stand against its citizens migrating.
“Our message to the Honduran people is, ‘Stay at home, in our native Honduras, the country where God has allowed us to live,’ ” Nelly Jerez, Honduras’s assistant secretary of foreign affairs, said on local television in October.
That message is a sharp departure from Honduras’s previously laissez-faire outlook on migration, and its recognition of the enormous economic contribution that remittances play in the country. Honduran officials would not comment on whether that rhetoric will change after Biden takes office.
Smugglers have still been able to shuttle migrants from Central America to Mexico, largely by paying bribes to police and immigration officials. Smugglers have begun using Biden’s election to entice would-be migrants in Guatemala, claiming it will soon be easier to cross the border.
Along with the large-scale damage wreaked by Hurricanes Eta and Iota and the financial squeeze inflicted by the pandemic, many community leaders across Central America are expecting an increase in emigration.
“The desperation has grown and the smugglers are making their pitches to people," said Francisco Velasco Marroquín, one of the leaders of the ethnic Ixil community in Nebaj, Guatemala. “Many people here are thinking seriously about leaving.”
Miroff reported from Washington.