Immigration

Why Mexico Is Cooperating with Us on Immigration

An agent of the National Immigration Institute talks to Cubans detained by the Mexican National Guard as they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 21, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
‘No one will come to trample our country, our land!’

One of the reasons border apprehensions have dropped from their alarming peak in May is that Mexico has been pretty aggressive in stopping third-country nationals from traversing its territory on their way north to make bogus asylum claims so they can be released into the U.S.

But why has Mexico been willing to work with us like this? It’s especially curious because in the past, Mexico was not at all eager to help us limit illegal immigration, a pattern we might have expected to intensify with last year’s election as president of left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly known as AMLO, pronounced as a word rather than initials).

No doubt President Trump’s tariff threats had some effect. Three-quarters of Mexico’s exports go to the U.S., and despite increased integration of our economies over the past couple of decades, they still need us a lot more than we need them. Also, Trump’s mercurial temperament clearly has the Mexicans worried that he could do something rash (similar to Iran’s fears about Reagan if the hostages weren’t released before he was inaugurated).

But it’s unlikely that these things would be enough to move a sometimes touchy nationalist like AMLO. Rather, I think a big part of the explanation is that the current flow of illegals is mainly made up of foreigners, not Mexicans. Earlier waves of mass infiltration across our southern border consisted mainly of Mexicans, and while Mexico quickly took back its people who had been nabbed by the Border Patrol, it did little if anything to reduce the flow. They did establish a police-like unit of the country’s immigration agency called Grupo Beta, which worked on Mexico’s northern border (opposite our southern border), but its remit was to help potential illegals with water and first aid and protect them from criminals.

But the current flow is very different. Yes, there are still a significant number of Mexicans sneaking across the border, but fewer than there used to be. Mexico’s economy has grown and developed to a point where fewer people see the need to emigrate. Also, there just aren’t that many able-bodied, working-aged people left in rural areas of Mexico, which is now about as urbanized as the U.S.

The current illegal flow, by contrast, is mainly non-Mexican, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (the “northern triangle” countries of Central America), but with growing numbers from Haiti, Cuba, various African countries, and even the Middle East. There had always been a small number of what the Border Patrol calls OTMs (Other Than Mexicans), but they now constitute the majority of the flow.

When the first caravan to catch the world’s attention passed through Mexican towns on its way north in spring 2018, it was often welcomed with mariachi bands, offers of food and water, and even medical checkups. But as more caravans arrived, plus many migrants in smaller groups, all drawn by loopholes in American law that facilitated their release into the U.S., the welcome started to wear out. As the Washington Post wrote this spring:

But six months and several caravans later, much of that welcome has dried up. Most media have left. And the people of Mapastepec, and other places that have been overwhelmed, are showing their fatigue with the growing stream of migrants.

“People . . . previously opened their doors to these migrants, but they do not have much extra money here,” said Roberto Sarabia, 56, who works at a small grocery store. “What little they could give, they’ve already given.”

Exhaustion has turned to resentment. As the Central American illegals started piling up in Tijuana, preparing to cross to San Diego, local residents last November staged a protest; the NPR report offered a sense of the mood:

Demonstrators held signs reading “No illegals,” “No to the invasion” and “Mexico First.” Many wore the country’s red, white and green national soccer jersey and vigorously waved Mexican flags. The crowd often slipped into chants of “Ti-jua-na!” and “Me-xi-co!” They sang the national anthem several times.

Tijuana’s mayor at the time, who was in political hot water generally (he subsequently lost his bid for reelection), rushed to try to take advantage of the situation by sporting a “Make Tijuana Great Again” red baseball cap.

And it’s not just Tijuana. The El Paso Times recently wrote about the newly developed Cuban community across the river in Juarez. Many Cuban illegals are giving up on their U.S. asylum gambit and deciding to settle down in Juarez (proving they were really economic migrants all along). And it’s creating resentment. As a burrito seller said of the Cubans, “They don’t get along with Mexican people. They get in a little group by themselves. A lot of people don’t like them here.” And a business consultant complained, “There are people who are coming looking for a handout, who want us to help them, when they could also look for work.”

The flow of illegals passing through Mexico to make bogus asylum claims in the U.S. has grown so large that some of them aren’t bothering to head all the way to the border and are applying for asylum in Mexico instead. The number of asylum applications submitted to Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR)  more than tripled in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period in 2018. The asylum burden seems to have gotten so bad that the refugee agency has removed the helpful video it used to host on its website explaining how to apply.

And over the weekend, a large group of illegal aliens from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America tried to set out on another caravan in southern Mexico, but were stopped by police and the National Guard (a new paramilitary force established by AMLO specifically for border control). Most telling was this bit of video from a Mexican news outlet, showing the commander of a National Guard platoon addressing his men before confronting the latest caravan. He starts his pep talk by saying, “No one will come to trample our country, our land!”

None of this is to say that our border has been fully secured, or that we don’t need to plug the loopholes that sparked this flow in the first place, or that interior measures such as E-Verify, workplace enforcement, and curbing sanctuary cities are no longer needed. And it’s entirely possible that if Mexico hits a serious economic road bump in the future, a new Mexican-illegal surge will take place, and the political calculus will be very different.

But for now, the United States and Mexico have a confluence of interests in stopping the flow of third-country “asylum-seekers” heading for the American border. Mexicans love their country, as they should, and they’re tired of foreigners using it as a doormat.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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