As much as the comparative study of migration policies has developed recently, it still suffers from a blazing assumption: that states have equal sovereign power to determine their migration policy according to their own interests. The notion of “externalization”, so widely discussed nowadays, reminds us of asymmetries of power. Some famous cases of externalization suggest a degree of negotiation: Turkey or Libya have been compensated for adapting their “own” migration policies to the preferences of richer states and regional blocs. In cases of extreme asymmetry though, as in the relation between Mexico and the United States, the spaces for sovereign decision making on migration policy are extremely thin to nonexistent.
Post-9/11, the rhetoric in the US on migration changed, and rapidly securitized, culminating in Trump’s “Muslim Ban”. The US has consistently equated migration with a threat to national security – particularly salient at the porous border to Mexico. There, economic dependence and asymmetries of power meet. While Mexico was not directly affected by 9/11 and subsequent terrorism, its migration policies are inseparable from the US’ securitization in response to the attacks. I will show this in this text that from having passionately opposed the wall, Mexico became the wall.
The stakes: migrants and numbers
Mexican migration policy is hard to understand for others because it is so glaringly incoherent. As part of the main migration corridor in the world and origin of an enormous diaspora, Mexico is a country deeply involved with migration. Its migration regulations have evolved slowly but arrived at the forefront of progressive approaches. Though some incoherences remain in the laws, the biggest incoherence of all is between laws and their implementation. It results from a lack of investment in capabilities to manage migration and from the power – at times, outright coercion- of a neighbour that chokes any attempt to move away from the securitization of migration.
The US is not only the strongest world economy and military hegemon, for Mexico it is the destination of over 83% of its total exports as of 2019, home to 12 million Mexican citizens and 38.4 million of Mexican origin, as of 2018. While not all these people keep ties with Mexico, many remit money, mostly to rural households to finance basic living expenses such as food and clothing. This demonstrates an unwavering support based on familial and community ties, often explained by the painful reality of family separation due to involuntary return and deportation, which started increasing since 2008. MPI and Colmex researchers have estimated that over 1.5 million persons were forcibly returned to Mexico between 2015 and 2018 alone, many of whom had left as children and thus barely knew the country. The other side of the coin merits mention: US nationals constitute the majority of immigrants in Mexico; Masferrer and Roberts find that half a million of them are children (US citizens due to ius soli), mostly living under constellations of family separation: they live with one parent or a grandparent in Mexico, while the other parent or both parents remain in the US.
Clearly, Mexico needs to cooperate with the USA because the stakes for its economy are too high, but also because a history of migration links its people across the two countries. The Mexican State gets this. Regardless of the party in power, successive governments over the last twenty years invested in capacities to support Mexican emigrants in the USA, as research by Alexandra Delano has shown. With every electoral reform since the early 2000s, Mexico has expanded emigrants’ electoral rights.
But Mexico has also started to grapple with the fact that it has become a country of return, transit, and where people seeking humanitarian protection may want to remain – a number estimated to be around 230,000 in 2021. This is not insignificant, but it is by no means overwhelming. Considering that Mexico has 126 million inhabitants, it should be possible to integrate this population if the capacities of the institutions that administer migration and refugee processes were strengthened, and if the coordination of agencies that manage migration at different levels of government included the voices of important stakeholders. Capacities in this regard are still utterly insufficient but there is recognition that more is needed.
Mexico is now at a juncture where many slowly and painfully developed improvements could be lost. It is a historical moment because it ceases to be “just” a country of emigration and is developing a complex migration profile. The stakes for deciding how its institutions will cope with this are high. And then came Donald Trump.
A U turn in migration policy
At is inauguration in December 2018, the current Mexican government promised a humanitarian and solidaristic approach to migration, especially towards our “brethren” from Central America. A regional development program (under the auspices of the ECLAC) should bind southern Mexico and El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras together, providing for opportunities so that people are “not forced to emigrate”. President López Obrador’s first international act was to sign it, and the first international trip of the foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard was to Marrakesh, to sign the Global Compact for a Safe, Orderly and Regular migration, where he promised that Mexico would “show how” it is applied, recalling that one of the two ambassadors who led the drafting process is a Mexican diplomat.
Big, brave plans, shortly after the caravans hailing from Central America started crossing Mexico, and as Trump was milking every chance to portray them as a security threat.
The new government in Mexico resisted this construal for a while. Having designated an expert academic as the head of the infamously corrupt National Migration Institute (INM by its acronym in Spanish), the highest authority in migration policy and, specifically, migration control, the incoming government seemed intent on doing differently: in its first trimester, it issued close to 20,000 humanitarian visas to people from the caravans, which allowed them to stay in Mexico legally for a year and to seek employment. Integration programs and job fairs were set up in key places.
I will not recall here how Trump turned xenophobia into a pillar of his style of politics, but the ways in which he challenged Mexico’s sovereignty to decide its own migration policies were unparalleled. Trump began to pressure Mexico to accept a safe third-country agreement early into his government. Legal scholars, academics, human rights groups, and civil society organizations opposed the idea. The mere vision is grotesque for a country in which the state has lost control of public security in vast areas and where internal displacement due to violence is rising. Mexican authorities openly resisted. And yet, in June 2019 Mexico accepted “for humanitarian reasons” its participation in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which until then had been allegedly a unilateral US measure by which people seeking humanitarian protection in the US were returned to Mexico to wait there for their turn to start a process in the US. As if these MPPs did not subject Mexican border cities to enough stress, additional measures on the US side curtailed the access to asylum throughout the pandemic. Even though the UNHCR and INGOs such as Doctors without Borders provided relief to the people stuck in Mexico, the costs have been borne by Mexicans and by the migrants and refugees themselves.
Historically, the asymmetric relation leaves Mexico little space for an independent position on anything that US authorities tag as a security issue. The trend in the US-Mexico relation to securitize the border is very long, and it expanded to issues of migration since 9/11. As the work by Beatriz Zepeda shows, successive Mexican governments have agreed ever since, through various cooperation agreements, to both contain migration and develop infrastructure of its north and south borders according to the security needs of the US. The “crises” of 2014 when unaccompanied children from Central America crossed Mexico to reach the US brought a new era of construal of undocumented migration as a security threat, and a further impulse of Mexican governments to secure the southern border with the Frontera Sur program. Yet the crude display of power when Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports that would increase for each month that Mexico “did not its job” to contain migration represents an extreme case of duress, only understandable because it came from the same man who imposed the so-called “Muslim ban”, caged the children of families who attempted to enter the US without a visa, ejected the US from multilateral institutions and attacked central democratic pillars of that country.
So, Mexico bowed. Diplomatic authorities agreed to send 6,000 troops to the border and that, if that failed to reduce immigration within 90 days, would consider a safe third-country agreement.
The U-turn was not all Trump’s doing. In trying to “show off” Mexican authorities had made mistakes. Even though the human rights-based approach only went as far as an attempt to finally apply the Migration Law of 2011, the investment in capacities for implementation was missing. The head of the INM was a person committed to go forward, but his agency required a deep restructuring for its bureaucracy to follow him. Mexico’s neighbors, both North and South, disapproved the issuing of humanitarian visas in Mexico, complaining about spillover effects on them.
The solution was to desist from the approach, in practice, if not in rhetoric. First, to reduce tension with the US, the foreign minister was put in charge of migration management – a move that simultaneously deprived the institutions formally mandated to direct migration policy of their power, and that “migratized” Mexican foreign policy. Second, and with vastly more serious long-term repercussions, the Decree that created the National Guard (a new security body mostly composed of former army men) gave it powers to support the INM in migration control. Third, in the urge to show that Mexico is “doing its job” deportations soared, often without due process. Until today, the open arms rhetoric of the President coexists with a militarized border that includes parade-like displays of the National Guard. The constitutional right of free movement of persons in Mexican territory has been curtailed, as the INM herds and chases migrants applying racial profiling practices learned from the US.
From vehemently opposing the wall, Mexico became the wall. Containment dominates and overwhelms its migration policy. Any hope to build a common front with Central American countries on a different approach has been prevented by US governments through bilateral negotiations, the constellation where the gigantic asymmetry works most in their favor.
Where we stand today
We have arrived at a bottleneck – by definition, an uncomfortable place. After Biden’s inauguration there was hope for greater alignment between Mexico and the US. He presented an ambitious plan that included rebuilding the asylum system, regularization with a path to citizenship and opening some new routes of labor migration that would benefit the entire region. However, with a tie in Congress, the hopes were moderate and are waning quickly. Vice-President Harris visited Mexico and Guatemala to deliver the utmost message of hopelessness: “Do not come”. The recent visit of Secretary Blinken to Mexico referred to migration, again, only by way of security. Mexico’s President is bidding for the US to support his modest socioeconomic development programs in Central America, but Biden’s take is quite different – and none of the two is ready to admit that even if they managed to cooperate on a common approach for the region, it is unrealistic that it will stop emigration from it. Migration will prevail; it is a multicausal phenomenon with political, cultural, and climate-change roots beyond insecurity or poverty.
Meanwhile, the incoherence in Mexico’s migration policies makes Mexico weaker internally to meet the challenges of migration.
Maximizing the limited spaces for action
In a Colmex research project, we studied the intersection of foreign policy and migration policy in today’s Mexico. We find a small window of opportunity now for Mexico to recenter its migration policy towards its own interests and laws. The necessary conditions for it to enjoy outward legitimacy are for it to be a long-term, comprehensive strategy, built through ample consultation. This could give Mexico a stronger hold in the future, especially in the scenario that Trumpism strengthens in 2022 and 2024, but also in other plausible scenarios that require hemispheric cooperation.
Migration challenges require being addressed with realism. Mexico needs its security forces to provide public security to Mexico’s inhabitants rather than stand on the border as a human wall to deter migrants. Moreover, Mexico cannot afford to reduce its migration policy to border controls, detentions, and deportations. It urgently needs to address the increasing demand for humanitarian protection, internal displacement and the integration of immigrants and returnees.
The responsibility and costs for a solution to the challenges of migration in the region cannot be dumped on Central America or in Mexico. If it is true that the US is ready to find a “decent solution”, then it must take responsibility for developing a wider approach to migration and educating its society on how much it relies on and owes to it. Talking about externalization is fine, but at times it falls short of the extortion seen in some asymmetric constellations.