On a sunny December Saturday in Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador was sworn in as Mexico’s newest president. That inauguration day, some five months after a sweeping electoral victory, AMLO (as the president is often called) gave a speech that homed in on a range of the country’s pressing political issues—inequality, corruption, economic development—but it also touched on a subject of particular interest not only to his own country, but also to the people and governments north and south of Mexico’s borders. Referring several times to the millions of Mexican immigrants living in the United States, López Obrador promised to create opportunities at home so that Mexicans wouldn’t have to migrate.
Meanwhile, almost 2,000 miles to the north, in Tijuana, several thousand Central American migrants were enduring their third consecutive week in a makeshift camp inside a municipal sports stadium. The migrants, part of a caravan that started in Honduras in early October, are expected to face a months-long wait before the can officially seek asylum in the United States. As a result, many have started asylum proceedings in Mexico.
Mexico has long been seen as a country people immigrate from. As Mexicans grapple with the reality of receiving an increasing stream of foreign migrants, though, immigration has become an increasingly relevant political issue. So far, AMLO’s discourse around migration has made a number of pointedly symbolic pro-migrant gestures, though in most areas, his concrete plans have yet to materialize.
In recent years, Mexico has faced a dramatic influx in migration from Central America, as a combination of economic and political insecurity and gang violence has affected Mexico’s southern neighbors. This is, in part, due to Mexico’s northern neighbor: The US’s aggressive deportation policies have fueled the rise of the Mara Salvatrucha (often referred to in the United States as MS-13) and Barrio 18, or 18th Street, gangs in El Salvador. In Honduras, the US-backed 2009 coup, followed by a largely contested presidential election last December, have fed political and social instability. As a result, asylum requests overall have increased more than tenfold, from 1,296 in 2013 to 14,544 in 2018, and requests to the Mexican government from Central Americans increased from 909 to 10,630 since 2015. Migrants from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—who must pass through Mexico on their way to the United States, now increasingly choose Mexico as a destination. The so-called migrant “caravan” has given this wave of migration greater visibility in the national and international media, and many pro-migrant organizations are calling on the new president to treat the increase in migration as a humanitarian crisis.
Ana Saiz Valenzuela, the director of Sin Fronteras IAP, a Mexico City-based NGO that defends the human rights of migrants and refugees, has been pleasantly surprised by López Obrador’s rhetoric around immigration so far. “Ideas like ‘no migration is illegal’—this is really a change in discourse compared to the previous administration,” said Saiz.
Saiz also pointed to López Obrador’s selections for the heads of the National Institute of Migration (INM) and the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) as positive signs for the migrant community. The INM director, Tonatiuh Guillén López, is an academic, previously from the migration-focused Colegio de la Frontera, who plans a complete overhaul of the institute’s workings, while the new head of COMAR, Andrés Ramírez Silva, is a former official at UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency). In the first week of his presidency, López Obrador presented an “Attention to Migrants” program in Baja California, which will support shelters in the area and take new measures to reinforce migrant safety. In mid-October, AMLO also promised to give work visas to Central American migrants once he assumed office.
López Obrador takes over the presidency after Enrique Peña Nieto and an administration known for its tough crackdowns on immigration. Surprisingly, though, in the last weeks of his tenure, as the caravan began to cross through southern Mexico, Peña Nieto created the “Estás en tu casa,” or “you’re at home,” program to offer temporary work permits for Central Americans who requested asylum and stayed in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. As of mid-November, the government said that 546 migrants had enrolled in the program, though caravan members largely rejected it because of the lack of work in that part of the country.
This measure, though, was fairly anomalous when compared to Peña Nieto’s previous record on Central American migration. The former president’s hallmark immigration policy was the Southern Border Program , a US-funded scheme to restrict Central Americans entering the US, starting at Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Crimes against Central American migrants in Mexico increased in the years following the plan’s 2014 implementation, as did arrests of migrants: between 2015 and 2018, Mexico arrested more undocumented migrants than the US deported.
Though the policy specifics still largely remain to be seen, López Obrador’s attitude toward migration has so far contrasted with that of his predecessor. One of AMLO’s first acts as president was to sign an agreement with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to create a “Holistic Development Plan” in order to prevent people from needing to migrate. Luis Angel Gallegos, a consultant at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) who specializes in immigration, said that gearing immigration policies toward mitigating poverty is an unprecedented policy step on an international level. It marks a changing relationship with the Northern Triangle, said Gallegos, and recognizes migration as more than a border security issue, but instead as a part of a complex social cycle.
Amidst López Obrador’s progressive rhetoric, though, Saiz noted that the four governments have yet to release any specific information about the Holistic Development Plan. “It worries us that we haven’t seen any document from the agreement,” she said. Additionally, not all Central American migrants are fleeing their country for economic reasons. “They also are fleeing from violence, state abuse, more complex conditions,” noted Saiz. “It’s not just a development problem. It goes beyond an economic problem.”
In addition to the Holistic Development Plan in Central America, AMLO has promised a variety of development initiatives in Mexico in order to curb migration of Mexicans to the United States. López Obrador emphasized these plans in his inauguration speech: “We are going to drive productive projects with public and private, national and foreign investment. These projects will create development corridors from the south to the north of the country, to keep Mexicans in their places of origin,” he said, referring to a range of policies from social welfare programs and assistance for farmers to development projects meant to generate employment and tourism in the south of the country.
López Obrador has also spoken of lending support to Mexican immigrants currently in the US, though Gallegos cautioned that AMLO has yet to propose any feasible policies. A previous proposal from the new president—converting Mexican consulates in the US into legal advocacy offices to ensure rights of Mexican immigrants—could violate the sovereignty of the United States, according to Gallegos.
Additionally, López Obrador has yet to detail new policies for citizens deported back to Mexico—or for those who voluntarily returned—from the United States. Deportees and returnees often struggle to reintegrate into Mexican society after spending years away from their birthplace. Ana Laura López, a founding member of the Mexico City–based deportee and returnee activist collective Deportados Unidos en la Lucha, said that though it’s still too early to tell, some of the new government’s administrative changes may temporarily jeopardize existing support programs for returned migrants. Also troubling, in the eyes of returnee advocates, Mexico City’s new mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, a member of López Obrador’s Morena party, has decided to eliminate the Secretary of Rural Development and Equity for Communities (SEDEREC), one of the offices primarily responsible for supporting migrants. And, while the government transitions, the Secretary of Work has stopped paying unemployment support, which many returned migrants rely on.
All of this makes Lopez anxious. While acknowledging AMLO’s spoken support for deported returnees and Mexicans trying to live abroad, she, like many who work with these communities, wants more than rhetoric. “Until now, the proposals are just that, proposals and promises,” Lopez said.
Above all of AMLO’s plans and promises, however, hangs the question of his cooperation with the US. López Obrador’s closed-door talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised red flags for Saiz. During the presidential campaign, AMLO insisted he wouldn’t “do the dirty work of the US” with respect to migration, specifically referencing arrests of Central American migrants. But last month, as the migrant caravan moved closer to the US border, members of López Obrador’s incoming cabinet told the Washington Post about a “Remain in Mexico” plan allegedly discussed with Washington. The policy would permit the United States to return asylum seekers to Mexico while they await a decision on their status—a change from the long-standing policy of allowing asylum applicants to remain in the US pending a ruling. Saiz pointed out that this could potentially violate the “ non-refoulement” principle, as asylum seekers could be subject to violence, kidnapping, or deportation while in Mexico. It would also likely cause even greater wait times at the border, and the increased number of migrants would further burden Tijuana’s already-stressed infrastructure.
After López Obrador’s Interior Minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, commented on the Remain in Mexico plan, though, her office denied that the government had reached any definitive deal. Whether this was a correction of inaccurate reporting or a reversal after pointed criticism, López Obrador starts his first month in office with many in the human rights community still optimistic about his administration’s approach to immigration policy. Saiz, however, cautioned against giving the new president carte blanche on the subject. “His discourse sounds good,” she said, “but it’s necessary to continue monitoring them.”