There is no easy way to deal with migration from Mexico and Central America. There is none in times of economic recession, much less during a global pandemic. This is true for both Mexico and the United States. It is true regardless of whether the current US government is a decent and progressive one like that of President Joe Biden or a reactionary and nativist one like that of former President Donald Trump.
The forces that compel people to leave their homes and migrate north have existed and evolved for decades. Addressing this problem has been a nightmare for US leaders, which, in turn, implies a scenario of horror for the governments of Mexico and Central America.
What complicates this problem for Biden is the current reality in Mexico: a very different one from the one faced by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and even Trump. The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, is handling in a catastrophic way all facets of the situation in his country, from the pandemic to the economy, the high rates of crime and violence and the deterioration of democratic institutions, the rule of law and human rights.
The Biden government, contradictory to the objectives of its own agenda and long-term efforts in favor of human rights and democracy, has entered into a short-term agreement with Mexico to immediately address the “crisis of minors ” South of the border by slowing down migration by continuing some of the Trump-era policies. This feat was far from easy to accomplish, requiring Biden to convince AMLO to cooperate, and “cooperating” in this diplomatic exercise is often a euphemism for doing America’s dirty work.
In exchange for López Obrador’s collaboration, the Biden administration has refrained from criticizing his growing authoritarianism. That is disappointing and could spell trouble for Mexico. With a weakened opposition, a scared judiciary, a corrupt military (which can be bought with meaty contracts for anything from airports to ATMs ), an intimidating elite, and a disorganized civil society, the only political element left to AMLO to contain is Washington.
So far, the Biden administration has been reluctant to comment on aspects of its bilateral agenda that pose legitimate concerns such as macroeconomic management, renewable energy and the rule of law. US officials fear that doing this could offend López Obrador and affect his willingness to help reduce the growing number of children arriving at the border.
In short, President Biden has sacrificed his principles for convenience by giving López Obrador carte blanche to continue his illiberal rule, a very high price in exchange for his cooperation. This strategy links the crisis at the border with the political crisis in Mexico. The only way to change this situation is to denounce the abuses that López Obrador has committed, such as threatening electoral authorities, pointing to intellectual publications or supporting the two-year extension of the mandate of the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, a decision that his critics branded as unconstitutional. Biden should not allow short-term disorder on the border to overshadow Mexico’s need for long-term stability.
Biden’s myopic approach, not far from that of his predecessor, comes just as a wave of migrants from Mexico is entering the United States without authorization. This could go on for years. The increase in Mexican male migrants is the real challenge. According to the National Population Council of Mexico, 1.5 million Mexicans migrated to the United States between 2016 and 2020. The number of Mexicans who leave their country mainly to seek employment in the north has increased considerably since the middle of the year. past.
Most likely, that number is actually much higher, as many people, especially single men, make multiple attempts to cross the border.
For many Mexican migrants, this attraction to the border was clear even before Biden was elected. In 2018, before López Obrador took office, and while the Mexican economy was growing, albeit, at a slow pace, the Customs and Border Protection Office detained an average of 18,500 migrants from Mexico per month. In 2019, that monthly average of detained Mexican migrants increased somewhat, and their share of total annual arrests decreased, in part due to AMLO’s initial policy of opening doors to Central Americans that began in May. That month, arrests of Central Americans soared to 104,000 from just 76,000 in April.
That made Trump furious and threaten to impose tariffs of up to 25 percent on all imports of Mexican origin. That was enough for López Obrador to give in, station more soldiers on the country’s southern and northern borders to prevent Central Americans from reaching the United States and accept the shameful Migrant Protection Protocol, under which asylum seekers must stay in makeshift camps located in crime-ridden border cities in Mexico, often in unsanitary conditions, await the date of their hearings.
As a result, in June of last year, arrests of Central American migrants fell to just 3,753. However, on the other hand, almost 298,000 Mexican migrants were detained last year, the highest annual total since 2010. They made up 65 percent. of all migrants detained at the border. As the economies of the United States and Mexico continue to move in opposite directions, people will continue to flock north for opportunities.
The past may offer clues as to what the future holds. In the mid-1990s, the Mexican economy collapsed in the crisis known as the Tequila Effect, while the United States enjoyed the Clinton boom. It was at this time that unauthorized migration from Mexico rebounded, so the undocumented population grew from 5.7 million in 1995 to 8.4 million in the early years of this century.
Today, Mexico is immersed in its worst economic depression since the 1930s, after contracting more than eight percent in 2020. His recovery is expected to be slow. Meanwhile, the United States is experiencing a formidable economic recovery, after suffering a modest 3.5 percent contraction last year.
Who will build America’s new highways and bridges? Who will be in charge of the construction works that spread throughout the cities? And who will serve the patrons of the countless restaurants Americans will flock to when they reopen? Many of them will be Mexican immigrants.
However, there is a big difference between the mid-1990s and now: AMLO. Corruption may be endemic in Mexico, but its increasingly nationalist, statist, populist and authoritarian stances are beginning to threaten Mexico’s 25-year-old democracy by destroying the institutions of transparency and the system of checks and balances. Even during the corrupt years of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, democratic institutions were respected. We must not judge these events lightly.
The Mexican government has also failed to implement the Agreement between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, leaving the decision to invoke the arbitration clauses in the hands of the companies if they so wish. American unions and environmentalists must monitor, practically alone, compliance with the treaty’s provisions on labor rights. However, AMLO has not faced much resistance from most US officials. In Washington, it is primarily progressive Democratic members of Congress who are signaling their backsliding into authoritarianism.
Biden’s reluctance to criticize AMLO’s policies is understandable but wrong. On the contrary, it should make it clear to Mexico that the Faustian agreement that Trump entered into with AMLO – do what you want, as long as you prevent Central Americans from entering the United States – is no longer acceptable. Biden must treat Mexico with the same rigor as countries like China, Russia, and Guatemala. He must collaborate with López Obrador, but also openly pressure him to take action on all fronts: climate change, human rights, corruption, the rule of law, democracy, and transparency.
Taking care of children at the border is important, so is taking care of Mexico.
Jorge G. Castañeda ( @JorgeGCastaneda ) is the author of America Through Foreign Eyes . He covers Latin American politics and culture and is a professor at New York University.