Mexican Migration Crackdown Creates a “Wall” Before the Wall

By Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson*

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo/ Adam Isacson, WOLA

Facing U.S. threats to impose potentially steep tariffs on Mexican goods last June, Mexico has adopted a series of measures along its southern border with Guatemala that, while somewhat effective at stopping the flow, seems a partial solution with high financial and political costs.

  • Mexican authorities’ apprehensions of migrants in June, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his threats, reached 31,416. Captures that month and in July were three times greater than the same period in 2018. (The total of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended by the United States and Mexico last year is estimated to be more than a million.)
  • Mexico deployed nearly 12,000 of its newly minted National Guard troops to the southern border states with Guatemala. Many identify themselves to visitors as “soldiers”; appear to have little (or no) specialized training for migrant interdiction; and wear military uniforms with black armbands that read “GN.” The Guard, however, has not reduced criminal activities against migrants. Local and international experts report that criminal elements assault, rob, rape and kidnap people transiting the area and prosecutors’ offices take little action to investigate these criminal attacks. Observers report that coyotes, working with corrupt officials, arrange safe passage for many migrants on designated “safe buses” for up to US$2,600 per person.
  • Local observers say the enhanced operations have largely shut down what was the most transited of the four main routes through which migrants have traveled in recent times, but some people are learning to take alternate routes through puntos ciegos (blind spots) where government patrols don’t often go and where risks for migrants can be greater. One such corridor, in central Chiapas, seems to continue to be exploited robustly.

The Mexican government has been reluctant to deal with the consequences of its acquiescence to Washington’s demands, according to numerous border-area observers. At its peak, the aggressive patrolling filled detention centers to far over capacity (some at 300 percent capacity) with poor health conditions and alleged mistreatment. Apart from the members of the National Migration Institute’s Citizen Council, officials have restricted independent monitoring of detention facilities by human rights groups and migration specialists. The country’s refugee agency is on the verge of collapse, yet the Mexican government has yet to allocate sufficient resources to it. Over the course of 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received over 70,000 asylum requests – more than double in 2018 – but its 2020 budget is a mere US$2.35 million (4 percent of UNHCR’s budget for Mexico operations).

  • The U.S. push has put the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in a bind. On his first day in office, he signed a decree with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – from which the vast majority of migrants come – to address the underlying causes of the migration. Another agreement was reached with El Salvador, to fund programs to preserve and create jobs in agriculture. While the Mexican government has not left behind the focus on reducing the “push” factors of migration, it has been largely put on the back burner.

The Mexican government has put managing U.S. relations ahead of addressing the strategic migration problems it faces. It did not push back when the Trump administration announced it would be returning U.S.-bound asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their hearings through the “Remain in Mexico” program, and under the threat of steadily rising tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican goods, it has largely complied with nearly all U.S. demands. The results have been mixed, and the costs have been high.

  • Sources in the southern border region report that the National Guard deployment and other Mexican actions over the past seven months have reduced – although estimates range from “not very significantly” to “probably just around 30 percent” – the number of Central American migrants arriving in Mexico. Shelters are not as full as they were in mid-2019, but several remain very full. Data on other nationalities is sketchy, but anecdotal information indicates that Cubans, Haitians, and even Africans continue to find their way to shelters in the area.
  • In complying with U.S. demands, AMLO and his government have risked violating some of their fundamental stated values. AMLO had campaigned on independence, transparency and improved human rights, but the border deployments of the National Guard represent a further militarization of Mexico’s border security strategy – with a significant risk of human rights violations – and the detention of fearful Central Americans and extra-continental migrants in substandard conditions.

January 17, 2020

* Maureen Meyer is Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Adam Isacson is WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. The full text of their report is at The “Wall” Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border.”

U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).

The “Invisibility Bargain” Constrains Migrants’ Identities and Rights

By Jeffrey D. Pugh*

Colombian refugees carry groceries

Colombian migrants in Ecuador carry home groceries. / Michelle Snow / USAID / Flickr / Creative Commons

Migrants win tolerance for their presence in host countries by striking an “invisibility bargain” with local citizens – contributing labor but settling for constraints on their identities and political participation – that slows their integration and leaves them vulnerable to discrimination and violence.  Through surveys of Colombians forced into Ecuador by conflict and violence, I have found that migrants feel pressure to conform to host communities’ expectations of their economic contribution and political and social “invisibility.”  (Full text of my recent article in International Migration Review is here.)  Migrants whose visible characteristics and practices violate norms that the host society deems to be unacceptable or who engage in overt political claim-making on the state often risk sparking a nativist backlash.  In response, Colombian migrants have employed a range of survival strategies:

  • Many who seek to integrate into Ecuadorian society sacrifice important elements of their Colombian identity, making a conscious effort to “unlearn” their accent, speak more softly and slowly, and use diminutive forms of speech to fit in better with Ecuadorians. Those who blend in better tend to have an easier time finding a job, getting housing, and building constructive relationships with Ecuadorians.
  • Others, particularly racial minority migrants, often choose to avoid contact with Ecuadorians, but this strategy of self-isolation removes them from potential spaces where they can negotiate access to rights, protection, and resources. Afro-Colombians are less likely than mestizo Colombians, for instance, to live in neighborhoods with mostly Ecuadorian neighbors.  As a result, they are less resilient against attacks or discriminatory behavior because they lack a support network in the host society.
  • Yet others employ a strategy that emphasizes the similarity between the experiences of Ecuadorian emigrants to Europe and Colombian immigrants in Ecuador. They propose a boundary-blurring strategy recognizing migrant rights everywhere and legitimizing migrants’ political participation in countries of both origin and residence.

The rhetoric of “universal citizenship” of former Ecuadorian President Correa (2007-2017) – a concept in which every person has a right to migrate and should therefore have access to basic rights – appeared to offer escape from the invisibility bargain and its consequences.  The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution prohibited discrimination based on migration status and guaranteed refugees many of the same rights as Ecuadorians.  This “open borders” rhetoric promised a commitment to human security above national security and promoted a reciprocal protection to Ecuador’s large diaspora in Spain and the United States.  Crafted to undergird politically beneficial policies, however, Correa’s approach faced political constraints and was undercut by the populist nature of his government style – and made only limited progress at the level of implementation.  Surveys show that the legal distinction between refugees and other migrants is still lost in practice in Ecuador.  The formal institutions of democratic states fail to provide security for everyone living in their territory in their responses to constituent pressure to scapegoat migrants.

In the absence of concrete progress toward concepts like universal citizenship, migrants will continue to face the trade-off between maintaining their identities and customs and successfully integrating into host communities and gaining political rights and participation.  Although informal mechanisms of political participation pale in comparison to the exercise of full citizen rights, they can be important sources of protection and assistance.  The evidence from Ecuador shows that the frequency and quality of interaction between Ecuadorians and Colombians seem to influence their attitudes toward one another.  Migrants reporting daily interaction with Ecuadorians had nearly double the level of positive perceptions of the native population compared to those who interacted less frequently – and broader acceptance by local communities at least offers a glimmer of hope of liberating other migrants from the pain of the invisibility bargain in the future.

 October 25, 2017

*Jeffrey D. Pugh is an Assistant Professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and executive director of the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution Conflict (CEMPROC).

Moving Toward Religious Unity in Response to Violence?

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Many Latin American churches are struggling to address the criminal violence challenging their societies – and are finding new ways of promoting peace in ways reflecting each country’s different conditions.  As part of American University’s multi-year project (click here) on religious responses to violence in Latin America, 40 grassroots activists representing two-dozen faith-based ministries in seven countries gathered in Guatemala City in mid-July to share experiences ministering to victims of the region’s rampant violence.* Their ministries in Mexico, Central America and Colombia ranged from programs for at-risk youth, to rehabilitation centers for former gang members, to shelters for Central American migrants crossing through Mexico.  Just as they developed a range of responses to the threats posed by authoritarian governments in the past, religion-based activists today are adapting strategies to a wave of “new” violence, a battery of social ills that includes gang violence, gender-based violence, and violence against migrants, as well as the persistent violence in states that have formally democratized but failed to deliver basic security.

Conflicting interpretations of the Church’s message of peace affect how churches define victims, how they emphasize or downplay the structural causes of violence, and how they respond to human suffering.  Thus, while many of the participants characterized the current crisis in terms of structural or institutional violence, such convictions were not always reflected in churches’ proposed solutions to the crises facing their communities.  There was no consensus, for example, on how faith-based organizations can effectively engage state institutions and policies, particularly where governments are perceived as corrupt and ineffective:  some participants believe the church’s role is to condemn corruption, while others saw no alternative to holding elected and appointed authorities accountable by pressing them to deliver justice.  One of the participating ministries based in Honduras, for example, provides legal aid for victims and their families, encouraging them to press charges, provide testimony, and follow-up with police and courts until they obtain a conviction.

For many of those in attendance, the ecumenical meeting was a first – in the words of a Mexican participant, “historic” – by offering a unique opportunity for religious practitioners to learn about the realities of neighboring countries, exchange ideas about best practices responding to violence, and discuss possible means of collaboration across borders.  Despite diverse traditions and circumstances, the churches are becoming a more visible and potentially more unified force in the struggle against violence in Latin America. In a region marked by ecclesiastical competition, they are challenging traditional understandings of “accompaniment” and are recognizing their shared responsibility to respond to violence with concrete action.  Indifference, passivity, fear, and silence received the greatest condemnation from the meeting’s participants.  These churches are realizing that their diverse activities are in fact complementary, and that they have a critical role to play – both to mitigate existing suffering and to eradicate root causes of violence.  

*The seminar “The Role of the Church in the Face of Violence in Mesoamerica: Models and Experiences of Peace in Contexts of Conflict and Violence” was co-organized by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA) based in Guatemala City.