GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, rose to power on the promise that he would tackle the country’s rampant corruption and violence.
That will have to wait, as he faces a more urgent matter: the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Thousands of migrants have arrived in the northern city of Tijuana in recent weeks, having trekked through Mexico as part of the caravans from Central America that began forming in October. Most of them have crowded into dirty makeshift shelters. Local officials have complained that they are unable to cover the cost, and humanitarian groups have warned of deteriorating conditions. Last week, UNICEF said it was “deeply concerned for the safety and wellbeing” of more than 1,000 migrant children in Mexico.
President Donald Trump has been at the center of the crisis, limiting the number of asylum seekers granted entry and putting the onus on Mexico to find a solution.
For his part, Lopez Obrador, the veteran leftist who won in a landslide in the July election, has mostly taken a diplomatic tone with Trump. But a showdown between the two leaders is already brewing.
While Trump has sent troops to the border to deter illegal crossings, Lopez Obrador has struck a more sympathetic tone. He has repeatedly called for fair treatment of migrants and acknowledged the desperate situations that many Central Americans are fleeing. And on Saturday, at his swearing-in ceremony, the veteran leftist leader spoke out against “coercive measures” on immigration.
The Trump administration is pressuring the Mexican government to accept a deal that would keep migrants in Mexico while they apply for asylum, breaking the established procedure of allowing asylum applicants into the U.S. as their claim is processed.
“'Remain in Mexico' basically only works if you arrest [asylum seekers] and put them in camps.”
Politicians in Mexico worry the proposal, known as “Remain in Mexico,” is already being practiced and could result in migrants waiting months or years at the border. Former Mexican congressman Agustin Barrios Gomez warned that illegal border crossings could spike as a result of such a policy.
“'Remain in Mexico' basically only works if you arrest [asylum seekers] and put them in camps,” Barrios Gomez told VICE News. He added that there was little appetite for such harsh measures in Mexico.
In an effort to address the mounting crisis, Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) signed a development deal with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras on the day of his inauguration. The plan aims to address structural issues and spur job creation in regions with the greatest outflow of migrants.
But AMLO's short-term solution could fuel a backlash at home.
“The president has promised to offer work visas to migrants,” said Javier Urbano, an immigration expert at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. “That would help them to integrate but could also attract more immigration in the future.”
AMLO must also contend with anti-immigrant sentiment in Mexico, which could grow as more migrants crowd the border. Though the migrant caravan was initially met with sympathy, negative news coverage and social media have stoked fears that migrants could take local jobs.
Juan Manuel Gastelum, the mayor of Tijuana, has complained of the financial burden of sheltering migrants in the city and fueled hostilities toward them. “Human rights are for the right humans,” he announced on national television last month.
Frustrations have boiled to the surface in Tijuana, where protesters gathered last month to oppose the caravan.
“We are used to migrants hiding in the shadows, trying to pass undetected,” said Rodrigo Abeja, a project coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrant support organization. “Some Mexicans have a hostile reaction toward this ‘difficult migrant’ who walks with others and denounces abuses. This is a new migrant who refuses to stay silent.”
Urbano, the immigration expert, said Mexico must also develop a successful regional strategy to reduce the number of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.
“If the U.S. government excludes migrants, Mexico takes on a new role in the region.”
Mexico’s new foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, went to Washington on Sunday to try to convince the Trump administration to support his development initiative in Central America. Ebrard has even compared the project to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. initiative to help rebuild Europe after World War II.
“I think Mexico and the U.S. would benefit greatly from investing in Central America,” Urbano said. “But we would probably not see the results of that strategy until the final year of Lopez Obrador’s six-year term.”
Urbano believes that Trump would only help fund the project in exchange for a deal that included keeping asylum seekers in Mexico. But he insisted that the current crisis is also an opportunity for Lopez Obrador.
“If the U.S. government excludes migrants, Mexico takes on a new role in the region,” Urbano said. “This is a chance to set an international example of humane treatment for migrants.”
Cover image: Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets the crowd at the end of his inaugural ceremony at the National Congress in Mexico City, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)