MADRID — More than a month ago, on June 27, an 18-wheeler truck was discovered on a remote San Antonio back road. Inside lay the bodies of 53 people who decided to take the route that hundreds do every month. One of the worst immigration tragedies in U.S. history unfolded through images shared a thousand times across social media and television around the world.
Three weeks later, on July 12, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador —known as “AMLO,” for short— traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden.
The meeting was standard, with both agreeing on commitments already discussed in the bilateral relationship, like making investments to reinforce the security and control of the U.S.-Mexico border and highlighting the importance of granting work visas—something already stated in the declaration issued from the Summit of the Americas, to which Mexico subscribed even though AMLO wasn’t present.
While the Summit of the Americas was held in Los Angeles at the beginning of June, a caravan of almost 15,000 people, most of them from Venezuela, left the city of Tapachula in Chiapas to cross Mexico and reach the U.S. border. At the end of July, another caravan of 2,000 people was forming to undertake the same journey.
With Title 42 —a rule that allows the expedited deportation of immigrants to Mexico due to public health concerns— still in place, hundreds of immigrants from Mexico and Central America face more risks crossing the border without access to any legal means of seeking refuge, thus making images like the ones seen in San Antonio more frequent.
In fact, in May 2022, 239,000 people were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, marking the highest number in U.S. history, and according to the International Organization for Migration, at least 650 migrants died crossing the border in 2021.
A Needed Shift on the Strategy
Eunice Rendón, an activist and coordinator from the Mexican NGO Agenda Migrante, thinks the bilateral strategy to address the migration issue needs a shift.
“It needs to move from a vision merely focused on control, on reaction, on militarization, on the securitization of borders, to one that focuses on how we are going to make them (migrants) cross in a lawful and orderly way,” she said.
The change, she explains, has to take place through the implementation of labor integration programs for refugees and immigrants in the U.S., something that has been done in Mexico by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as Rendón points out.
“What they do is connect refugees to an offer or a job opportunity so the Mexican Refugee Agency (COMAR in Spanish) can make alliances with companies that join the cause,” she explained. “They already connected 20,000 refugees and inserted them in the Mexican labor market, and by the calculations of UNHCR, they have already contributed more than 110,000 million pesos ($5.3 billion) in taxes alone.”
With a similar perspective, Maureen Meyer, vice president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says the statement made at the meeting between the two leaders “does show a concern on the issue of containing migration, going after the smuggling network and human trafficking.”
Even so, some concerning issues such as human rights and access to asylum protection were left out.
On the matter of work visas in the U.S., Meyer sees a big gap.
“The U.S. needs to expand its access for temporary work visas (through Temporary Protected Status), in particular towards Central Americans, ensuring their human and labor rights in the process,” she said. “It is important that the U.S. business sector be involved in this, especially from the agricultural and technical industries. It is important also to look for more mechanisms to ensure the regularization of many people who have a temporary status, such as the case of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorians who have had this status for more than 20 years.”
Meyer recognizes that the approach of attacking the root causes of migration has been present in the bilateral discussions, as President López Obrador has proposed with his social programs in Central America to help impoverished people. However, she believes that a focus on the “problems of corruption, weakness of the rule of law, and how to deal with natural disasters” in the countries of origin “are not being touched upon in these discussions.”
Rendón adds that without a mechanism to properly evaluate the impact of these social programs and being a long-term proposal, it will not have the desired effect to tackle the current crisis.
“Going to the causes is a difficult thing. The issue is multi-causal,” she said. “It is not just a lack of opportunities and poverty. It is unfortunately an issue of increasing insecurity and fear of losing one’s life.”
The two women also express concern about the implementation of the agreements made at the Summit of the Americas. The general strategy is based on shared responsibility, so by the expansion of resources from rich countries to the Global South, other Latin America countries can take on more regional migration movements.
Nonetheless, there are some points like the “reference to the entry visa regimes that we have seen already in Mexico, that has put travel restrictions for Venezuela, Brazil, and Peru, (which )make it more harsh for migrants, especially Venezuelans who now have had to cross through the dangerous Darién jungle to arrive to the U.S.,” Meyer stated.
More Contention, More Migration
Both experts agree that restrictions on movement will only make for more migrants seeking alternative ways to migrate, since the root causes, like violence, lack of opportunities, and climate disruption, are continuously present in their countries. The contention strategy followed by Mexico, especially after former President Donald Trump pressed the Mexican government in 2019, has only made an already deathly crossing more dangerous.
Rendón explains that it is in this way that traffickers take advantage of the situation and make more money. “The more security is placed on the border and the more difficult it is to pass, the more expensive the fee will be and the more business it will mean for these criminals,” she said.
Although the Biden administration has announced the ending of the “Remain in Mexico” policy —which forced asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while they awaited hearings in U.S. immigration court— Rendón says that the details of its closure will matter.
“We have to see what the mechanisms are going to be in place, so that it truly finishes… and especially how will deportations via Title 42 operate. Because, although Trump started it under the pretext of the pandemic, the truth is that Biden has used it much more than Trump, almost 70 percent more, deporting hundreds of Central American people to Mexico every day,” she said.
Scenes like the one seen in Texas are becoming a recurring picture of the migrant crisis. Last year an overcrowded truck with 160 migrants drifted and crashed on a highway in the state of Chiapas. No one has been detained yet. At the end of July, another abandoned truck in the state of Veracruz was found by local police with 90 people inside. It is estimated that around 400 traveled in the vehicle.
“These are tragedies that will continue to happen as long as there are no legal ways for people to leave their countries in an orderly manner,” Meyer said.
Diego Estebanez García is a Mexican journalist currently based in Madrid. His work has appeared in El País and El Periódico. Twitter: @DEstebanezG