Mexico's presidential candidates say they're done with doing Trump's 'dirty work' on the migration issue

Mexico has detained and deported more Central American refugees than the United States. The country's presidential candidates say that needs to change.

'There’s a growing recognition that Mexico’s stance on migration can be viewed as very hypocritical'

Central American migrants walk from Mexico to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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Donald Trump's controversial "zero tolerance" policy on border crossings continues to dominate politics in Washington and across the U.S.

It's also looming large on the campaign trail in Mexico, where a general election is scheduled for July 1. And although the left-leaning candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading in the polls, there is one thing all the candidates seem to agree on: the status quo on immigration is not acceptable.

Still, López Obrador has gone one step further. He says that Mexico should stop doing America's "dirty work."

Over the last four years, Mexico has detained and deported hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants who were trying to pass through Mexico on their way to the U.S. The crackdown was motivated in part by a deal the country made with the Obama administration to take American money to beef up security on its own southern border.
 
But Trump's aggressive rhetoric toward Mexico is making that deal seem a lot less inviting.

Maureen Meyer is the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America. She spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury from the Arizona-Mexico border about how Trump's zero tolerance policy on immigration is playing out in the Mexican election.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence look on as U.S. President Donald Trump shows an executive order putting an end to the controversial separation of migrant families which he signed at the White House on June 20, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Brent Bambury: What exactly is the "dirty work" that Mr. López Obrador says Mexico is doing on America's behalf?

Maureen Meyer: I think he's likely referring to the efforts made by current president Peña Nieto since 2004 under the guise of the Southern Border Program, which really increased Mexico's enforcement efforts — particularly in the southern part of the country — and ramped up their capacity to quickly detain and deport a lot of Central Americans.

So much so that in 2015, Mexico actually detained more Central Americans than the United States.

BB: And what specifically did those enforcement efforts look like? How did they work?

MM: It was repositioning some of Mexico's immigration agents to southern Mexico to increase enforcement. It was adding a lot more stable checkpoints, as well as mobile checkpoints to the southern part of the country.

Central American migrants who spent weeks travelling across Mexico walk to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum on April 29 in Tijuana. (David McNew/Getty Images)

It was making it very hard to ride the train that migrants frequently travel on — meaning either speeding the train up in parts of the country, putting physical barriers along the tracks to make it hard to climb onto, or having immigration agents or security guards guarding the train station so migrants couldn't climb on top.

BB: But now all of the presidential candidates in this campaign, no matter their political stripe, seem to agree that those are things they don't want to do anymore. Why is there this change of heart?

MM: I think there's a growing recognition that Mexico's stance on migration can be viewed as very hypocritical. On the one hand what they have done — rightly so — is work to defend the rights of Mexicans abroad, particularly the United States.

And at the same time you look at how they permit abuse to happen in Mexico against migrants — and how they have focused on detaining and deporting people regardless of whether they might be asylum seekers.

That really puts them in a difficult position, because you should be more coherent about your policy. 

A caravan of Central American migrants spent weeks travelling across Mexico, walk to the U.S. border, with supporters, to ask authorities for asylum on April 29 in Tijuana. (David McNew/Getty Images)

BB: But is it that they want to be more generous to asylum seekers or that they can't be seen to be supporting Donald Trump?

MM: I think what Trump has created has been making immigration much more of a political issue in Mexico. For a long time, especially when a lot of Mexicans were being deported to Mexico in the Obama era, they weren't even a priority for any Mexican politician.

Now it has become a key issue — and supporting Mexicans abroad, or those that have been returned to Mexico, has become a very political issue. And so I think this has created a sense of, "You have to respond in a different way," because there's been such a negative rhetoric against Mexicans and against migrants by the Trump administration.

Asylum seeker children from Mexico and Central America line up for their breakfast at a migrant shelter in Tijuana on June 20. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: So what are the options for Mexico — if it wants to treat asylum seekers better? What are the candidates saying about doing that in this campaign?

MM: I think one thing is how do you increase their capacity to receive asylum seekers. Mexico's asylum system is very dysfunctional and very small. And so you'd have to start with investing in that.

López Obrador has also talked about creating some sort of economic development plan with the cooperation of the United States and Central America to really address some of the root causes of why people are fleeing their homes.

And the other is how do you address the abuses by Mexican agents against migrants in transit, so that at a minimum those that are trying to reach the United States are not victims of horrific abuse on the way.

Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks to the press on May 17 in Mexico City. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

BB: But still we'll see some migrants reach that border with the United States, the northern border of Mexico. It sounds like the U.S. will lose some of the help that it's been getting in stemming migrants from reaching that border. Do we know what the impact could be on the United States after the election?

MM: I think they could lose some of that support. It's also been clear that even with Mexico's increased enforcement efforts, migrants have found ways to get to the border. 

And I think we have to recognize a lot of people will continue to see the United States as their main destination, regardless of policies, because they have family in the U.S. or they view it as where they could have a better economic livelihood.

People climb a section of the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on April 29 in Tijuana. (David McNew/Getty Images)

BB: Donald Trump wants Mexico to become a safe third country. Is there any talk of that in this campaign?

MM: The current government has talked quite a bit with U.S. officials about it. I don't think it has been into the specifics with the candidates as to whether they would do that or not.

Independently of whether Mexico is a safe third country, I think it does need to work — and the new president needs to work — on increasing its asylum system. Currently there are only 15 asylum officers for the whole country that are paid for by the Mexican government; the rest are supported by the U.N.

So they really need to increase the services they're providing to people that would like to settle in Mexico and be protected in Mexico.

There is no way that what the U.S. should be pushing Mexico to do is to be able to wash its hands of its own international obligations to receive asylum seekers and refugees.- Maureen Meyer

BB: But if Mexico does that, and is able to increase its asylum capacity, then doesn't that relieve pressure on the United States? Doesn't it let them off the hook for taking in Central and South American refugees?

MM: I think any country needs to increase its ability to receive Central American or Venezuelan or other refugees. Panama has increased its capacity; Costa Rica is as well. It shouldn't be about which country gets everybody, as much as how everyone should be working together to create a regional system to protect asylum seekers.

And certainly there is no way that what the U.S. should be pushing Mexico to do is to be able to wash its hands of its own international obligations to receive asylum seekers and refugees.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Maureen Meyer, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.