MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Thursday that his administration is investigating corruption among its immigration and customs agents, responding to a question by VICE News about claims that agents are extorting migrants applying for asylum in the U.S.
“The entire immigration and customs system is being cleansed of corruption. This was initiated straight from the National Palace,” he said at his morning news conference.
“To the extortionists, the miscreants who pass themselves off as public servants and officials but are vulgar thieves: There will be no tolerance,” he said, singling out corruption in the agency that controls customs and migration. “This practice may last a month, two months, but no more. They will be fired.”
López Obrador’s comments came one day after VICE News detailed how Mexican officials along the Texas-Mexico border are demanding up to $3,500 from migrants who want to access ports of entry and apply for asylum in the U.S. They are also threatening migrants with deportation if they don’t pay.
López Obrador, who came into office promising to protect the rights of migrants, has been criticized for helping carry out Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. They include a new tactic known as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires people seeking to get asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed.
The policy, which began in January in the Tijuana-San Diego area, is being rolled out across the southern border. Mexican immigration officials have also prevented unaccompanied minors from seeking asylum in the U.S.
While corruption and organized crime along the Mexican side of the border are nothing new, the strict limitations on asylum seekers enacted under the Trump administration has further primed the ground for extortion, according to immigration lawyers and human rights workers.
“We are already investigating, and we are going to pursue cases”
López Obrador referred specific questions about corruption among immigration officials to Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero. She said she was aware of the extortion detailed by VICE News and planned to pursue charges against agents in Reynosa and Matamoros, two of the busiest ports of entry between Mexico and Texas. They are across from the Texas cities of McAllen and Brownsville.
“We are already investigating, and we are going to pursue cases,” she said.
Sánchez Cordero said cases have already been filed against immigration agents in Mexico City found to be extorting migrants. “At this moment, we have three or four complaints already filed, but we will continue to bring them.”
Sánchez Cordero described Mexico’s Institute of Migration, which is in charge of carrying out Mexico’s immigration policies and oversees the ports of entry, as “one of the most penetrated with corruption” when López Obrador took office in December.
“We are changing practically all the personnel and, of course, we have already presented some criminal complaints against immigration agents who extorted money from people trying to enter our country,” Sánchez Cordero said. “We are going to clean the institute. We can’t do it overnight.”
Sánchez Cordero said the administration is in the process of replacing “the great majority” of the agents at the Institute of Migration, beginning with agents at ports of entry and in Cancun. Several migrants told VICE they were extorted twice by immigration agents; when they arrived in Cancun and later at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cover image: Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador delivers his report on the first 100 days of government, at the National Palace in Mexico City on March 11, 2019. (Photo: PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Correction March 13, 2019: Due to an editing error, VICE News misstated the U.S. city adjacent to Reynosa, Mexico. It is McAllen, not El Paso.