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Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants

Salvadoran refugees Josue Flores Rivera and Jaquelinn Madrid Mendoza. Photo: Tamara Pearson.

When it comes to immigration and refugees, Mexico’s progressive president elect, Andres Lopez Obrador, has more in common with US president Donald Trump than you’d expect.

While the world watches on as the US deports refugees and immigrants and locks up children, Mexico is already deporting more Central Americans than the US. Further, between 2016 and 2017, nearly 60,000 Central American children were detained here in migration prisons (officially dubbed “stations”). The US and Mexico are cooperating in patrolling Mexico’s southern border, implementing a security plan that has seen 85% of immigrants deported without a solid revision of their case, and Central American migrants being forced to walk for weeks in order to avoid border officials and gangs who regularly abuse migrants.

The US has designated well over US$100 million to be used on the Mexican-Guatemalan border, with former US president Barack Obama having allocated some US$2.3 – $3.5 billion annually to Plan Merida (an agreement between Mexico, Central American countries, and the US, to supposedly counter drug trafficking, crime, and money laundering in the region). These funds have gone towards spy technology, intelligence gathering, 24 Blackhawk helicopters, 2,200 Humvee vehicles, and more. Ultimately, this bilateral collaboration is a way for the US government to donate money to private arms companies, with Mexico’s southern border as an excuse.

Rather than challenging this cooperation with the US and this vision of migrants as a burden or threat, Lopez (known by his initials, AMLO), has made it clear that when he swears in on December 1, Mexico will continue to guard its borders.

In July, shortly after his electoral victory, AMLO sent a letter to US president Donald, stating that he wanted to begin “a new stage” in Mexico-US relations based on “mutual respect”. That so-called respect however, doesn’t involve an end to Mexico’s role as the US’s low-grade accomplice in filtering out Central Americans seeking refuge or work in the US.

AMLO told Trump, “The key goal of my government will be to get to a point where Mexicans don’t have to migrate because of poverty or violence. We’ll ensure that migration is elective, rather than necessary.” And indeed, AMLO’s focus on creating employment and “development” to prevent forced immigration would initially appear to get to the roots of the problem.

Mexico, he said, is willing to put money into a joint effort with the US and Central American countries, where 75% of the funding would go towards regional development and 25% to “border control and security.” Additionally, each country should take “care of their borders to prevent the illegal trafficking of merchandise, arms, and drugs.”

Mexico’s incoming security minister,  Alfonso Durazo, also recently announced  AMLO’s plans for a new police force “to stop undocumented immigrants, drugs and guns from crossing into the country from Central America.” He said it would be “sizable” and would be deployed on Mexico’s northern and southern borders to “apply the law.”

Trump’s response to AMLO’s letter was vague, “Like you, I believe that meeting the challenge of illegal immigration involves more than just strong border security. We are prepared to further address the economic development and security issues that drive migration from Central America, but we must also increase cooperation to protect the rule of law and the sovereignty of both our countries.”

Can “development” prevent forced migration?

While focusing on local development and employment is typical policy for any head of state, AMLO’s migration policies so far do nothing to protect the right to migrate. They are also, at least in words, no different to current right-wing president Enrique Pena Nieto’s policies. Pena Nieto also stated that increased work opportunities in Central America was getting to the “bottom of the problem” while at the same time he increasedthe number of guards on the trains migrants use, as well as embedding motion detectors, geolocation devices and using drones to catch migrants. In southern Mexico, security officials patrol the roads, check cars and buses, and conduct operations in bars, parks and squares where migrants are known to hang out. Records of abuse conducted by such officials are obviously slim, but the country’s Human Rights commission, in 2009 noted 9,758 kidnappings of migrants in a space of five months, and migrants themselves have described disappearances, clandestine graves, beatings, and mass kidnappings. Most of the migrants I’ve talked to at a minimum had been extorted. Seventy percent of women passing through Mexico are raped or sexually abused.

Any “development” in Mexico, meanwhile, is unlikely to counter one of the biggest causes of economic migration: inequality. The massive wealth and living standards disparities between rich countries like the US and poorer countries like Mexico are rooted in centuries of imperialism and ongoing economic exploitation. Putting the differences in the cost of living aside, a Mexican in the bottom 10% here earns in a year what some people earn in the US in a day or two ($667.95).

Immigration shouldn’t be stopped

Though Trump and AMLO are very different, when it comes to migration, neither is amenable to the idea of humane, open borders, where migration is a welcoming and supported experience, instead of being wrought with abuse and danger.

In Mexico City, I talked to two refugees fleeing El Salvador after receiving death threats from gangs because they couldn’t pay them the weekly “tax”; Jaquelinn Madrid Mendoza, 19, and her friend, Josue Flores Rivera. 

“The borders should be more flexible. There’s less work and more violence and danger where we come from, but  we’re forced to cross borders incorrectly because of the security,” Madrid said.

“We had to stay in Tapachula (near the Mexican-Guatemalan border) for a while because we were scared. You can work there to save up money to be able to keep on traveling, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can be attacked or kidnapped. There are a lot of border officers, so you feel uncomfortable,” she added.

Near the border, “there are a lot of migrants. Many of them have to sleep in the street. It would be great if when we said that we are migrants, they’d say, “Ah, okay,” and try to help us. But instead, they grab you and deport you,” Flores said.

But not everyone has trouble getting into Mexico. People from the US, for example, can enter the country for six months on a tourist visa applied for when entering the country.

“If you’re coming from a country with less, it shouldn’t be harder to get into Mexico. It shouldn’t be unequal. In the end, we’re all humans, so the borders should be more accessible,” Flores said.

Beyond protecting the human rights of those forced to travel overland, it has been proven over and again that open borders are better for all parties: for the receiving countries, the countries people are leaving, and of course, for the migrants themselves.

Further, a rigorous Danish study conducted over 17 years found that borders open to large influxes of refugees tend to see an increase in low-skilled wages and employment for residents of the receiving country. Economist Michael Clemens also calculated that opening the world’s borders would double global GDP. Allowing workers to move where global and regional economies need them increases their productivity, and also sees workers sending money back to their country of origin as remittances in quantities that are much higher than the tokenistic, patronizing, and controlling “aid” rich countries send.

Like getting an abortion, people who need to migrate, will. Putting up obstacles to that only makes things harder for them. In Mexico, immigrants who stay without formal permission can’t legally work or exercise other rights, and they become part of a super-exploited class. Likewise, opposition to open borders tends to be similar to opposition to abortion rights – an unfounded fear of losing power and privilege – in this case, a desire to maintain an apartheid world where light-skinned immigrants are worth more.

The border policy Mexico needs

Instead of deporting migrants and refugees, AMLO should deport a few US companies. Constellation Brands, for example, is currently building a plant in northern Mexico where all of the 4 million bottles of beer produced daily will go right back to to the US. The plant doesn’t benefit Mexicans, but it will consume a lot of local water, leaving farmers in the region struggling to complete one crop a year. Another Constellation Brands plant used so much water that local residents had none. Coca Coca has colonized Mexico with its 16,000 corner stores. Squeezing out local foods, Coca Cola gets Mexicans hooked on the drink early by sponsoring school sports courts. And here in Puebla recently, a hydro-electric station dependent on a local river has been approved to power Walmart.

Refugees and migrants, meanwhile, have much less freedom. The 80or more refuges around Mexico are nowhere near enough to provide shelter and rest for them during their journeys. Refuges like the one I work with depend on donations and volunteers, while others others are supported by religious organizations and churches. The UNHCR also provides some support, and Amnesty International used to, but this support comes with conditions – such as who the money goes to, and how it is spent. AMLO, instead of beefing up border security, should instead use such resources to provide more refuge, employment, housing and health services for migrants and immigrants and strive for new migration laws that welcome people to Mexico, no matter where they are coming from.

More articles by:

Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.

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