This nation’s president first promised to treat migrants humanely and give them jobs. Now he’s pledged to crack down on the growing flow of immigrants moving through his country and is sending 6,000 members the National Guard to help seal its porous frontier with Guatemala.
But the changes in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approach to immigration policies don’t seem to be affecting his popularity. Rising tensions between Mexico and President Donald Trump’s administration are a growing concern, but Mexico’s own growing weariness over the rising number of Central Americans immigrants is giving Mexico’s president some wiggle room,
López Obrador was in Ojinaga on Friday to address migration, including how his federal government plans to help Mexican border cities pay for the hosting of migrants. Those migrants, mostly Central Americans heading north to the U.S., have lately been receiving mixed messages about whether they’re welcome in Mexico, including from the president himself.
Before arriving here in Ojinaga, López Obrador’s head of the National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillén López, resigned, citing “personal reasons.” López Obrador said more than 500 institute members had been dismissed from their posts, adding that his administration is “trying to put our house in order, but these things take time.”
In militarizing its southern border and creating a strong police presence at airports to stop migrants headed for the U.S., López Obrador, also known as AMLO, is appeasing Trump by doing his dirty work.
Under a pact struck last week, Mexico agreed to enforce new measures to head off Trump’s threat of imposing tariffs of up to 25% on Mexican goods. Those efforts include expansion of Trump’s Migration Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, that requires migrants to wait in Mexico until summoned by U.S. authorities to seek asylum, and sending the National Guard to control, if not downright stop, the flow of migrants upward through Mexico.
Mexico has in the past agreed under pressure from its northern neighbor to stem the flow of migrants. In 2013, during President Barack Obama’s administration, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Southern Border Program resulted in a 41% increase in apprehensions.
More recently, the flow of migrants has again become a roaring tide. Turmoil in Central America, the lure of jobs in the north and family reunification have been motives too powerful for Mexico to overcome, according to Maureen Meyer, Mexico director at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and economic justice.
But in promising the crackdown, some say, López Obrador is in danger of compromising his own agenda. On Friday, Mexican senators pushed back against his government for “caving in” to Trump. Some experts agreed.
“I think Mexico gave up all leverage it had on Mr. Trump and his threatened tariffs by caving in,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the Baker Institute at Rice University. “Trump would have given up on the tariffs, given the enormous pressure that he was facing from many different fronts. Democrats and Republicans were up in arms; the business and entrepreneurial community was pushing against them; and officials from the most affected states were also pressuring the Trump administration not to impose tariffs on Mexican imports.”
“In a few months,” said Payan, “he will threaten Mexico again and the country will have no choice but to continue negotiating.”
López Obrador and Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard have said the risk for Mexico was too great. And cooperating, López Obrador said, produced “a good deal for our country.” He said he would use proceeds from the sale of the presidential plane to help pay for the new migration plan.
Ebrard insisted that the agreement prevents an economic and financial crisis that could have left 200,000 people unemployed, with a 1% drop in GDP, underlining how integrated the U.S. and Mexican economies are these days.
Ebrard said he asked his American counterparts for at least 45 days to show that Mexico’s strategy will work before considering more drastic measures. Those could include declaring Mexico a “safe third country,” a designation that would force Central American asylum-seekers to apply for refuge in Mexico rather than in the U.S., something López Obrador and his foreign minister had once vehemently vowed never to do.
“The next 45 to 90 days are going to be crucial in determining whether the political capital that he’s put in play results in big returns or jeopardizes his standing,” said Tony Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and counsel for White & Case in Mexico City. “But you’d have to say that so far his return on investment has been impressive.”
López Obrador has also called for compassion from his countrymen, who are showing signs of fatigue underscored by polls showing public opinion in Mexico is shifting away from sympathy toward the migrants. One survey shows some 60% of Mexicans believe that migrants from Central America, Africa, Asia and Brazil are violating Mexican immigration laws and need to be deported. Not to please Trump, but for Mexico’s own good.
At a grocery store here in Ojinaga, checker Claudia Morales, 25, is ambivalent about the new arrivals, many of them camped out at a hotel, she said.
“There seems to be no end,” she said. “We’re a welcoming community, but we’re also poor. There are so many people from everywhere, and we can’t help them all.”
In the Big Bend Sector alone last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said more than 650 migrants turned themselves in. The sector is just across from Ojinaga, a picturesque region marked by its stark isolation.
Eric Olson, a security and Central America expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said, “Mexicans overall have been generous and willing to help migrants, but there is also growing pushback locally, and this gives [López Obrador] some leeway to take action.”
López Obrador urges restraint from his countrymen, stressing that he doesn’t want to see any “campaigns against migrants. That would not be Christian or humane.”
He breezed into office last summer, easily winning the presidency by promising to end corruption and lowering the levels of raging violence across the country. He also pledged to end U.S.-bound migration. But he was referring to migration by Mexicans, which had already dropped dramatically in the last 12 years.
Shannon O’Neil, a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, has predicted migration would be López Obrador’s biggest challenge with Trump. Despite his favorable poll numbers, she now warns of tougher days ahead, “whether it is migrants or his own economic policies.”
López Obrador “will face a crisis in the coming months,” and his agenda will be sidetracked, she said.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, added: “So far, President López Obrador has been able to turn this into a win for himself and sell this as a victory for Mexico. That may change if Mexico suddenly finds itself responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and other foreign nationals who are returned to the Mexican border communities” because of the expanded Migrant Protection Protocols.
About 3,000 migrants are waiting in Ciudad Juarez alone with U.S. court dates as far away as April, the Hope Institute said in a statement Friday. The El Paso nonprofit stresses that migrants languishing in Juarez can face violence, extortion, kidnappings and theft. The bodies of at least seven presumed migrants were discovered in canals this week in El Paso alone.
The Hope Institute also accused the government of not sharing interviews with attorneys in which asylum-seekers expressed fear.
For now, López Obrador may have history on his side. Migration from Central America usually falls during the summer months because of sweltering heat, Olson said.
“I would expect some of those historic patterns to hold, but the drop-off may not be as dramatic as in the past because of factors in Central America and a sense among many coyotes and would-be migrants that the U.S. asylum system is no longer functioning,” said Olson.
Efrain Olivas, 43, is a former county commissioner turned cab driver and member of one of López Obrador’s top rival parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. He supports López Obrador in trying to “do more to protect our border with Guatemala,” he said, “because we live on the border and know borders need to be protected. But we also face violence, and that should be our National Guard’s main priority, restore order in this country.”
Olivas said he is a bit puzzled by what he calls López Obrador’s “submissive” attitude with Trump, but warns López Obrador “is not so different than Trump. He, too, has a temper, a nationalist and isolationist streak, and when pushed, he will explode and lead protests, scorn at institutions, and rile up the country. This is far from over.”
Also Read : San Antonian joins Texas’ genocide commission