Mexico's president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador says Mexico should no longer do Washington’s “dirty work” by catching Central Americans “fleeing violence and misery.” (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Mexico’s incoming president, a relentless critic of the ruling elite, has voiced no objection to the free-trade deal its current government brokered with the United States.

On security matters, President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s team says it wants a productive relationship with the Trump administration and will continue partnering in the fight against drug cartels.

But if there is a potential source of conflict in the U.S.-Mexico relationship after Dec. 1, when López Obrador will take office, it is likely to be immigration enforcement. There, the left-wing Mexican populist and President Trump appear to be on a collision course.

The flow of Central American migrants through Mexico and into the United States — a matter of intense personal and political interest to the U.S. president — is on the rise again, defying Trump’s attempts to crack down at the border. Stopping migrants and asylum seekers through tougher enforcement is a priority for the Trump administration. López Obrador and his team have a different take.

“We are not going to chase migrants. We are not going to criminalize them,” said Alejandro Encinas, the incoming undersecretary in Mexico’s ministry in charge of immigration. “We have to stop looking at immigration as an issue of public security or national security, or the national security of the United States.”


A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks into Mexico from an outpost near San Diego. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Those sentiments echoed statements made by López Obrador during the presidential campaign, when he said Mexico had been doing Washington’s “dirty work” by catching Central Americans “fleeing violence and misery.”

Last month, the Trump administration notified Congress that it planned to transfer $20 million from State Department economic support funds to a Department of Homeland Security program that would help Mexico detain and deport more migrants. Mexico hasn’t taken the money.

On Friday, a spokesman for Marcelo Ebrard, who was chosen as foreign minister in Mexico’s new government, said the Trump administration’s offer for funding was “not necessary.”

Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, clamped down on Central American migration early in his term. Under Obama administration pressure, Peña Nieto introduced in 2014 the “Southern Border Plan,” which intensified immigration patrols at Mexico’s frontier with Guatemala, detaining many migrants before they could reach the United States. During Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, 2013, Mexico detained and deported 78,733 Central Americans. That number shot up to 176,726 two years later, according to Mexican government statistics.

Peña Nieto also cooperated with the United States by sharing biometric data collected on detained migrants and allowing Homeland Security advisers to work out of southern Mexico.

López Obrador’s aides have described the Southern Border Plan as a failure. They argue that migrants continue to easily cross Mexico’s porous border with Guatemala and that an intensified hunt for illegal immigrants led to human rights abuses and corruption.

“The only thing it’s accomplished is to increase the levels of corruption and violence in the south,” Encinas told The Washington Post. “The problem of the southern border is not a problem of cops and robbers.”

Mexico’s new government plans to shift roles within the Interior Ministry so that Encinas, as undersecretary, will oversee human rights and migration. Previously, those responsibilities were held by separate officials. Some migrant advocates are calling for deeper administrative change — such as moving Mexico’s migration agency out of the Interior Ministry entirely.

López Obrador’s advisers say their intention is to protect the human rights of migrants while also pushing economic development programs in southern Mexico and in Central America, to give people in the region more reason to stay at home. Some of the incoming administration’s signature projects in southern Mexico — a “Mayan Train” that would traverse the Yucatan Peninsula; a reforestation project in the jungles of Chiapas — would likely rely on Central American migrant labor.

“Instead of having only military and police measures to keep this exodus of Mexicans and Central Americans from going to the United States, we want to reach the same objective of reducing these numbers by promoting social development in our countries,” said Hector Vasconcelos, a senator who served as a top foreign policy aide to López Obrador during the campaign.

It remains unclear whether the incoming administration’s gentler rhetoric about migrants will translate into fewer deportations — and fewer Central Americans crossing into Texas.

Some Trump administration officials worry that López Obrador’s team emphasizes migrant rights above law enforcement. At the same time, they’re encouraged by how much interest López Obrador’s team has shown to find areas of cooperation.

“I think, at a senior level, they acknowledge the need to have a border with Guatemala, and they want to partner with us to confront [criminal groups],” said one senior Trump administration official with knowledge of the Mexico talks. “This is where I believe we will have common ground.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer insight into a sensitive foreign policy matter, added that the United States intends to stress that fighting drug cartels requires cutting off the massive profits these groups derive from migrant smuggling.

“The new government has a willingness to change the situation, and it seems less obsessed with national security and border control,” said Salva Lacruz, a coordinator for the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center, which gives legal aid to immigrants near Mexico’s southern border. But if the migration agency is not removed from the state security apparatus, she said, “there’s not going to be profound change.”

Migrant advocates from across the country have attended public forums hosted by the transition team to discuss its plans. Berenice Valdez Rivera, a coordinator for public policy with the Institute of Women in Migration (IMUMI), said more than 100 organizations in the United States and Mexico plan to present a formal set of proposals to López Obrador’s team next month.

Some ideas include making it easier for Central Americans to receive papers to work legally in Mexico; or to allow those fleeing gang violence to receive permits to cross Mexico.

Immigration experts say that López Obrador’s policy proposals remain vague and that his team is more focused on Mexicans living in the United States than on Central Americans heading to the United States.

“People believe that since there’s a new president who says new things that, by magic, there’s going to be change,” said Javier Urbano, a professor of international studies at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. “But that’s not true.”

A Mexican official familiar with immigration policy said the incoming government might make progress reducing corruption. Broader change might be difficult, the official said, given agreements between the United States and Mexico to share intelligence on migrants as part of counterterrorism efforts.

“There are international agreements that oblige not only Mexico but all the countries in the world to collaborate,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. However, “the new administration has a clear vision of the subject, it will attempt to do novel things, and perhaps we will no longer see migrant detention centers as they exist now.”

Much could change between the United States and Mexico, even before López Obrador takes over. The two sides reached a tentative agreement last month on a new free-trade deal, but it does not include Canada and has yet to be finalized by the legislature in either country. López Obrador’s advisers say that working with the United States on immigration will also depend on the state of the broader bilateral relationship.

The Trump administration has not engaged López Obrador’s team on the idea of a “safe third country agreement” that would make asylum seekers from Central America file their claims in Mexico, on the grounds they are no longer facing the immediate danger that drove them to flee, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic affairs. Homeland Security officials have sought to convince Mexico that such an agreement would be in its best interest, saying it would reduce unauthorized migration and the revenue derived from it by smuggling groups.

Such an agreement could include a provision allowing the United States to return to Mexico those who come over the border illegally.

Mexico’s outgoing government had warmed to such a proposal, and U.S. officials have indicated they would be willing to provide significant financial assistance to help Mexico absorb the migrants. Trump administration officials believe it would be premature to broach the idea with the incoming government, the senior U.S. official said, at least until López Obrador’s team has had more time to assess the scope of U.S.-Mexico cooperation.

Maya Averbuch contributed to this report.