Under US pressure Mexico shifts immigration policy
By MARÍA VERZA | Associated Press | Published: September 12, 2019
MEXICO CITY — Under growing pressure from the U.S. government, Mexico's immigration policy has moved from one promising to help migrants to another characterized by militarized enforcement that has support of the country's foreign secretary.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has faced pointed criticism from the left about the change in direction, but Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard made clear this week after a meeting at the White House that Mexico plans to stick with the get-tough approach that has succeeded in reducing the flow of Central American migrants to the U.S. border.
"We haven't done anything that we should be ashamed of," Ebrard said Tuesday in Washington. "We would never do that."
Not everyone agrees. More than 100 organizations from Mexico, Central America and the United States signed a letter this week denouncing some of Mexico's immigration enforcement practices as "arbitrary, indiscriminate and therefore illegal."
"In these 90 days, Mexico has become President Trump's border wall," the letter added.
The United Nations has also warned that thousands of migrants have been left in vulnerable situations, while other experts have characterized policies as improvised and said migrants will face more abuse.
The debate over Mexico's approach to immigration comes as a wave of migrants continues to try to cross the country to reach the United States.
Following a threat by President Donald Trump to implement crippling tariffs on all Mexican imports in late May, Mexico stepped up measures to contain and dissuade migrants who say they are fleeing violence and poverty.
Thousands of members of a newly created National Guard have been deployed to run highway checkpoints on migrant routes. Bus companies have been warned not to sell tickets to passengers without documents. The head of the country's immigration agency, a sociologist and academic who studied immigration, was replaced by the head of the federal prison system. More than 40,000 migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. have been sent back to Mexico to wait out the process.
State offices of Mexico's immigration agency were given quotas for the number of migrant detentions they needed to make, said two people with knowledge of the situation. They agreed to discuss the matter only if granted anonymity because they feared repercussions, but they would not say who issued the order.
One of those people added that immigration officials were asked to do "practices outside the law," such as accompanying local police entering houses without a judge's order to "rescue" migrants who were then deported rather than given refuge as witnesses or victims of a crime.
Since the tariff threat, the new face of Mexico's immigration policy has been Ebrard, who shuttled between Mexico City and Washington trying to avert the tariffs. Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, whose ministry oversees the immigration agency, just as quickly became invisible on the issue. Recently, Ebrard denied becoming a "super secretary" in an interview with the magazine Proceso.
International organizations that deal with the Mexican government on immigration issues suddenly found the authority that had resided in the interior ministry was being consolidated in Ebrard's foreign ministry.
The power shift has also vested more power in the military, which has provided most of the command structure and personnel of the new National Guard, even though that force is technically under civilian command.
The military's profile has grown within Mexico's immigration agency as well, with eight generals or vice admirals — three of them retired — named as the top immigration officials in key states such as Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Jalisco and Coahuila.
The new order in Mexico's immigration enforcement was laid bare when an audio recording of the top immigration official in the southern border state of Chiapas was leaked in July. Carmen Yadira de los Santos can be heard saying during a meeting with her team that nothing happens without the military's approval.
"If it doesn't have the first and last name of the general in charge of the area, nobody moves," she said. "This changed and we are under the instructions and supervision of the National Guard." She added: "Nobody — not even I — can make unilateral decisions."
Mexico's National Immigration Institute declined to comment. The foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
"The foreign relations secretary appears to be more interested in maintaining a good relationship with the United States than assuring the commitments they are taking on don't have an economic and humanitarian cost that is too costly for the country," said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. The group advocates for human rights in the region and is one of those that signed the letter criticizing Mexico's government this week.
Mexico's policy shift has also been criticized by some of those responsible for implementing it.
Rodulfo Figueroa recently left his position as the top immigration official in the northern border state of Baja California. He supports the goal of a more orderly migration and slowing the flow of migrants through Mexico, but objected to the means. While Mexico lacks the administrative tools to manage an orderly migration flow, the new strategy will remain incomplete and unsustainable, he said.
For some the turning point was Mexico's acceptance of the "Remain in Mexico" policy under which the U.S. has sent more than 40,000 migrants back to Mexico to await the processing of their asylum applications. Ebrard has said the program allowed Mexico to avoid signing a "safe third country" agreement with the U.S., which would have made those migrants seek asylum in Mexico rather than the U.S.
But with the U.S. Supreme Court's order Wednesday allowing the Trump administration to block any migrants other than Mexicans and Canadians from applying for asylum at the U.S. border, Mexico faces the same result that a safe third country agreement would have created. It has the potential to multiply the number of migrants stuck in dangerous Mexican border cities, where they will likely end up paying smugglers to help them cross illegally or become easy prey to organized criminal groups.
"The Mexican government should regret the fact that their rampant increase in migrant enforcement resulted in holding tens of thousands of migrants in dangerous and inhumane conditions in detention centers," said Meyer, the immigration expert.
She added that the government's agreement to "Remain in México has overwhelmed Mexican border towns and left thousands of U.S. bound asylum seekers without proper shelter and vulnerable to crimes such as kidnapping, rape and robbery."
Mexico's leader shows no signs of doubt about his approach.
"We met our commitments and the risk, the threat of imposing tariffs, moved away," López Obrador said Wednesday.