How Mexico Should Deal with the Central American Migrant Crisis


In October 2018, 160 migrants set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on a journey north in hopes of eventually entering the United States via the US-Mexico Southern border. As these migrants made the dangerous journey marked by cartel violence, exploitation, and robbery, they were joined by thousands of Central American migrants, mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (also known as the Northern Triangle of Central America/NTCA). By the time the group reached the US-Mexico border, it had amassed over 7,000 members [1]. This “migrant caravan”, as it was referred to by mainstream media, presented a crisis for both Mexican and US immigration authorities.  Neither was prepared to process the high flow of migrants, half of whom were young children or single women.

While the recent “migrant caravan” received a lot of media attention, Central American immigration is by no means a new phenomenon. Since the 1990s, thousands of Central Americans have entered the US via the US-Mexico border each year, fleeing large-scale gang violence, civil war, natural disasters, and high poverty rates [2]. In the past ten years, there has been a surge of unaccompanied minors attempting the treacherous trek by riding a cargo train known as La Bestia through Central America and Mexico, culminating in a crisis in 2014 when the high volume of minors overflowed American immigration courts and detention centers [3]. Though most media attention has been focused on how the US government has dealt with processing asylum applicants and relocating migrants, Mexican immigration authorities have in fact been faced with the same burden, yet have access to much fewer resources. As Central American immigration continues to grow, the US and Mexico need to work together to find a solution that helps deal with migrants in an efficient and humane manner.

Mexico has held a historically relatively open stance towards immigration, although its role as a traditionally immigrant-sending country has resulted in a scattered immigration policy. In recent years, due to stricter border enforcement in the United States and increased economic development, Mexico has become both a final destination and a transit point for many Central American migrants. In 2014, in response to the unaccompanied minor crisis and pressure from the US, Mexican immigration authorities cracked down on undocumented immigration through the implementation of a “Southern Border Plan” (Plan Frontera Sur), which called for more deportation of undocumented migrants and the addition of checkpoints along the more popular migrant routes [4].  However, this plan simply forced migrants to take less visible and riskier routes, where they were more vulnerable to assault and exploitation.

In December of 2018, US Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, released a memo that announced a new immigration policy that has since been dubbed the “Remain in Mexico” plan [5]. Instead of allowing migrants seeking asylum in the US to remain in the US as they await a hearing, the new plan seeks to send applicants back to Mexico after giving them a Notice to Appear for a court hearing, where they would remain until the date of the hearing. According to the Trump administration, the goal of this new policy is to eliminate the possibility of migrants trying to “game the system [by] skipping court dates and disappearing into the United States”[6]. Meanwhile, the newly elected Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who has been likened by many to a leftist, Mexican version of President Trump, has made statements supporting internal economic development plans to improve conditions inside Mexico as a means of curbing migration to the United States.

While both Trump and AMLO’s proposed policies aim to address pressing issues related to the migrant crisis, these policies will ultimately fall short of their goals. In order for Mexico to handle the Central American migrant crisis in a humane and efficient manner, a number of short-term and long-term policies must be implemented. First, the United States should take a less militarized approach to its own Southern border and shift its aim towards speeding up the rate at which asylum cases are processed. Second, since Mexico is far from ready to become accept its own asylum applicants and lacks the institutions to effectively support newly arrived migrants, the Mexican government’s main goal should be protecting migrants traveling through Mexico and preventing unwarranted deaths from starvation, injury, kidnapping, gang violence, etc. Third, the US government should assist Mexico in creating the necessary infrastructure to process refugees and migrants.

The US government can alleviate the crisis the Mexican government is facing by sending more social workers and judges to the border instead of soldiers. During his presidency, President Trump has hired 7,500 additional border agents and 10,000 ICE officials, in addition to the recent decision to send 5,900 national guard soldiers to address the perceived “caravan” crisis [7].  Due to the urgency of the new hires, many ICE officials and national guard soldiers did not receive proper training, resulting in increased violations of migrants’ civil liberties at the border. For example, in December of 2018, border patrol agents fired tear gas into a crowd of peaceful men and women. Instead of protecting the border, soldiers and ICE officials impede the migrant relocation and asylum application process by making it more difficult for migrants to stay in detention [8]. By remilitarizing the border, the US government will thus be able to process asylum and immigration applications at a much faster rate. Currently, US border agents are only processing around 100 applications a day, creating a bottleneck in Tijuana, where many Central American migrants are staying in temporary camps. President Trump’s addition of military reinforcements to the US-Mexico border has essentially sealed the border, resulting in a bureaucratic catastrophe on top of a humanitarian crisis. This combination is extremely detrimental for the underprepared Mexican government who must now find a way to house the second-largest group of temporary refugees in Latin America without the proper resources.

As mentioned earlier, migrants making the journey from Central America to the US-Mexico border are extremely vulnerable and subject to many risks throughout their journey. Their basic human rights such as food, water, and shelter are not protected; starvation and disease are common problems along the route. In addition, migrants face extortion and gang violence, and many are forced into carrying drugs for cartels. Women and children are also vulnerable to sexual assault and kidnapping. According to a study by Migration Policy Institute, 80% of migrants had been robbed during their journeys and 60% of women had been sexually assaulted [9]. Since 2014, over five hundred migrants have died en route to the United States, and more than half of these deaths occurred in Mexico [10]. Many deaths occur aboard freight trains that migrants ride through Mexico. Yet, despite all these risks, thousands of migrants continue to make the journey, as staying in their home countries would pose an even greater threat upon their livelihoods.

"Their [migrants'] basic human rights such as food, water, and shelter are not protected; starvation and disease are common problems along the route"

Human rights watch groups have found that Mexican police have done very little to protect migrants. Xenophobic sentiments towards Central American migrants and corruption are the two main forces behind police inaction. In 2015, a Central American migrant fell off a freight train and drowned in the river below while Mexican police watched on and did nothing [11]. Incidents such as this one are entirely preventable, yet many Mexican police forces, in addition to taking no action, often collude with local gangs to extort migrants for profit. Many Mexicans also view Central American migration negatively and thus are not interested in helping migrants.

This becomes problematic as without police protection, migrants have no support network, and thus are more likely to suffer injuries, disappear, or even die.

Although changing xenophobic sentiments and fixing corruption takes time, the Mexican government can consider investing in aid groups and NGOs that help protect migrants. Currently, organizations such as Casa de Los Amigos and Hermanos en El Camino provide food, shelter, and information to migrants, allowing them to rest between legs of their journey in a safe place where they are less likely to be attacked or extorted [12]. These organizations receive little to no government funding and thus rely almost entirely on donations. By funding NGOs and aid groups, while reforming police programs, the Mexican government will be able to alleviate the migrant crisis by making the journey safer.

Mexican immigration authorities are far understaffed and underfunded to take on the Central American migrant crisis alone. The asylum system in Mexico is deeply flawed, facing a range of problems from inadequate staffing in the refugee agency, leading to months-long waits for applicants to uneven training and supervision of immigration agents to inconsistent adjudication of asylum law. Migrant advocacy groups report instances of Mexican border agents threatening to hold migrants in detention centers indefinitely as a means of discouraging applicants from trying to stay in Mexico. COMAR, the Mexican government agency in charge of processing migrants, is also severely underfunded [13]. Even after the UN agreed to cover costs for hiring 30 new employees, there has still been a two-year backlog in the asylum processing system. All of these weaknesses in the Mexican immigration system leads to the conclusion that a plan like the “Remain in Mexico” policy President Trump is proposing would only further exacerbate the problem. If the United States wanted to improve Mexico’s asylum system, the best way would to provide funding for more COMAR employees and also cooperate with Mexican immigration enforcement agencies to create a more humane and equal asylum application process. In doing so, the United States would also benefit, as, with a more efficient system implemented in Mexico, the US would likely receive fewer asylum applicants, alleviating its own over capacitated immigration system.

Calla LiStaff Writer

Edited by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kim


Sources and Notes

Featured Image: “GM3_0832.JPG” by Priscilla Du Preez — Own work. Licensed under Cc BY 2.0 via Unsplash



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