The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unauthorized immigrants face public backlash in Mexico, survey finds

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes part in the inauguration of the government’s new militarized national guard police force. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

[Lea en español]

Mexicans are deeply frustrated with immigrants after a year of heightened migration from Central America through the country, according to a survey conducted by The Washington Post and Mexico’s Reforma newspaper. 

More than 6 in 10 Mexicans say migrants are a burden on their country because they take jobs and benefits that should belong to Mexicans. A 55 percent majority supports deporting migrants who travel through Mexico to reach the United States.

Those findings defy the perception that Mexico — a country that has sent millions of its own migrants to the United States, sending billions of dollars in remittances — is sympathetic to the surge of Central Americans. Instead, the data suggests Mexicans have turned against the migrants transiting through their own country, expressing antipathy that would be familiar to many supporters of President Trump north of the border. 

The face-to-face survey among 1,200 Mexican adults was conducted after a sharp increase in immigration enforcement by Mexico following a June agreement with the Trump administration. Trump promised that deal would reduce the number of migrants crossing into the United States. He threatened to impose major tariffs on Mexico unless it complied. 

Read full Mexico poll results

For a year, Mexicans watched as a growing number of Central Americans moved through the country on their way to the U.S. border. Some of those migrants traveled by foot and bus in large caravans, sleeping in small-town plazas and relying on donations of food and clothes. Once they reached Mexico’s northern border, the migrants waited months for the United States to process their asylum claims, often overwhelming local shelters. 

While migration from Central America through Mexico has existed for years, the overall increase in migrants as well as their more visible modes of transit turned the phenomenon into a public lightning rod. The Trump administration’s immigration policy, which forces many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings, increased the pool of migrants in northern Mexico and exacerbated the frustration felt by many Mexicans. 

The Post-Reforma survey finds 7 percent of Mexicans say their country should offer residency to Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico and trying to enter the United States. Another 33 percent support allowing them to stay temporarily while the United States decides whether to admit them. But a 55 percent majority says they should be deported to their home countries.

When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to step up Mexico’s immigration enforcement to avert U.S. tariffs, many analysts expected his base to be disillusioned. López Obrador had long advocated for migrants’ rights and the freedom of movement for asylum seekers. 

But 51 percent of Mexicans support using the country’s newly formed national guard to combat migration of undocumented immigrants in Mexico, a key provision of the agreement. Just under half of Mexicans have heard about the June agreement, but among those who have, 59 percent favor it ,while 34 percent are opposed.

Some dissatisfaction with the migration pact may come from López Obrador supporters who believe the agreement is unsympathetic toward Central Americans in search of refuge. But in parts of Mexico, the most vocal critique of the deal is that it has forced Mexican cities to contend with a growing pool of asylum seekers. In some northern cities, rumors have spread that African migrants are carrying Ebola. In others, officials say they’ve simply run out of places for migrants to stay. 

Last week, for example, the governors of three northern Mexican states, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, signed a statement saying that they could not accept any more migrants. They blamed López Obrador’s administration for allowing so many asylum seekers to wait along Mexico’s northern border without offering more resources to the region. 

By August, Mexico expects to receive 60,000 asylum seekers who are forced by the United States to wait for their hearings on Mexican soil. López Obrador has said those migrants will be given work permits, but it remains unclear who will provide their shelter or food. Many are likely to spend months in Mexico before they are granted or denied asylum in the United States. 

“The number [of migrants] that the federal government is talking about is impossible for us to deal with,” said Miguel Ángel Riquelme Solís, governor of Coahuila, at a news conference. 

A total of 11.6 million documented and undocumented Mexican migrants live in the United States, but unauthorized migration from Mexico has declined sharply over the past decade. The Post-Reforma poll shows 78 percent of Mexicans say it’s harder to migrate to the United States than five years ago. This year, Guatemalans are on track to make up the largest group of migrants apprehended at the U.S. border. It would be the first time in recent history when Mexicans do not make up the largest group of migrants by nationality. 

López Obrador holds a 70 percent job approval rating eight months after entering office, a strong standing albeit down from 78 percent in a Reforma poll in March. While he took office as a lifelong populist, López Obrador quickly had to respond to threats from Trump, mostly about immigration enforcement. Many expected López Obrador — who once compared Trump’s hostility toward Mexicans to the way Adolf Hitler spoke of Jews — to condemn the U.S. president. Instead, he has largely submitted to Trump’s demands on migration. 

That posture prompted many Mexican public intellectuals to deride López Obrador as a puppet of the U.S. president. Commentators suggested that Mexico may not have paid for Trump’s border wall, but it had effectively “become the wall.”

Yet the Post-Reforma poll suggests that such an approach hasn’t eroded López Obrador’s popularity very much. A 54 percent majority say he is standing up for Mexico’s interests in his dealings with Trump, though a similar 55 percent say the recent immigration agreement was imposed upon Mexico by the United States rather than being negotiated by the two nations. 

López Obrador gets relatively high marks for his treatment of migrants, with 44 percent saying he has done a good job on the issue and 27 percent rating him negatively.

Mexicans continue to have an overwhelmingly negative opinion about Trump. More than three-quarters of Mexicans dislike Trump, according to the survey, and more than 8 in 10 say he treats their country with disrespect. 

The Post-Reforma poll finds a scant 2 percent of Mexicans name immigration as their country’s most important problem, with a 55 percent majority citing insecurity and 9 percent each mentioning corruption and unemployment. Another 7 percent name the economy, followed by 4 percent each who say poverty, political problems and social problems are the country’s more pressing concerns. 

A sizable minority of Mexicans see migrants as a safety risk, with 39 percent believing they commit more crimes than Mexicans; 21 percent believe they commit fewer crimes, and 31 percent don’t see any difference. 

Mexicans’ views of immigrants appear to have soured sharply in the past year. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found 57 percent said immigrants mainly strengthen Mexico, while 37 percent said they weaken it. The Post-Reforma poll asked a similar question and found opinion reversed: 64 percent of Mexicans say migrants are mainly a burden on the country, and 20 percent see them as strengthening it.

Despite concerns about security and immigration, Mexicans are positive on balance about their country’s trajectory. Some 40 percent say Mexico is on the right track, while 26 percent think it’s on the wrong track, and 32 percent fall in the middle. 

A 53 percent majority reports trust in the national guard, which was launched by López Obrador and has played a major role in increased immigration enforcement. Two-thirds of Mexicans say they would like the national guard to be in their city, and 45 percent say they feel more safe with the force in place. 

López Obrador receives positive marks on fighting poverty, corruption, dealing with education and health issues. His ratings for some other issues are underwater — 45 percent give him negative marks on fighting drug trafficking and organized crime (24 percent rate him positively), and 41 percent rate him negatively on security (while 32 percent give him positive marks). 

The survey was jointly sponsored by The Washington Post and Reforma. It was conducted July 9-14 among 1,200 Mexican adults through face-to-face interviews in 100 election districts across the country. The overall results have an error margin of plus or minus five percentage points.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

Trump administration moves to restrict asylum access

How Mexico talked Trump out of tariff threat with immigration crackdown pact

In Guatemala, ‘the migration problem is a coffee problem’

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news