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The "Wall" Before the Wall: Mexico's Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border

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By: Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson


Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into the Mexican presidency on December 1, 2018 promising a new, more humane approach to the migration of Central Americans and others who come to Mexico to either settle there or travel north to the United States. He advocated for the governments of Central America, Mexico, and the United States to coordinate a joint response to address regional migration flows—a response based on shared responsibilities and coordinated actions.

However, the multiple groups of migrants traveling in “caravans” through Mexico en route to the United States caught the ire of the Trump administration in the early months of López Obrador’s presidency. When record numbers of children and families began reaching the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. government started an aggressive campaign to pressure Mexico to do more on migration enforcement.

Increased U.S. pressure forced the López Obrador administration to place on the back burner its lofty goals of addressing the root causes of migration. The government shifted its efforts toward detaining and, in most cases, quickly deporting as many migrants as possible in order to meet some undefined U.S. goal of success.

In August 2019, staff from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) traveled to Mexico’s southern border to learn about the impacts of Mexico's increased migration enforcement efforts and to get a sense of recent trends in migration flows and asylum requests in Mexico. To do this, we visited border crossings and enforcement checkpoints and conducted interviews with human rights defenders, shelter workers, academics, government officials, and representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This report details our findings. We assess the steps the Mexican government has taken to increase enforcement operations since June 2019, after the Trump administration threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods in response to increased migrant arrivals at the U.S.- Mexico border. This includes an assessment of how the deployment of Mexico’s new National Guard to the country's southern border has impacted migration flows and access to asylum. In particular, we analyze how the National Guard deployment has driven migrants to travel through more remote areas where they are more likely to fall prey to criminal groups, and how smugglers are adapting to this new shift. The report further examines how this crackdown has overwhelmed migrant detention centers, heightened concerns of inadequate screening of potential asylum seekers, and resulted in a rapid increase in asylum requests in Mexico. Finally, the report examines how U.S. assistance has supported Mexico’s migration enforcement and border security efforts along its southern border.

The report’s final section provides recommendations on how the Mexican government can work to ensure the safety and well-being of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, and root out any corruption and abuse linked to security forces and migration agents who interact with these vulnerable populations. It also provides recommendations on how the U.S. government can support these efforts, while upholding its own national and international commitments to asylum seekers.