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Mexico in the Middle: US Moves to ‘Externalize’ Border Crisis Instead of Addressing Its Root Causes

Issue 283

Laura Carlsen Nov 2, 2023

MEXICO CITY — The general reaction to Mayor Eric Adams’ visit to Mexico, especially from actual migrants in the vicinity of his numerous press events, was “What’s he doing here?”

That’s a good question. Adams traveled in early October to Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, at least in part paid for with public money, despite the fact that one of his main talking points was that his city can’t afford to receive asylum seekers. Although he avoided saying outright — “Don’t come!” — he wasn’t far off. Adams told the press that migrants were victims of “false hopes,” warned of the “American dream becoming a nightmare” and stressed that his city does not have the resources to receive more people. Ecuadorian media reported that he referred to immigration as a “global threat” and an “aggressive virus.” He was met with protesters in Colombia en route to the dangerous jungle crossing of the Darien Gap, carrying signs reading “Immigrants are not a photo op.”

Compared to Republican hate rhetoric, Adams mixes concern with dissuasion, walking a fine line between recognizing the plight of individual migrants and vilifying their numbers. On his Latin American trip, the mayor carried the same baggage of prejudice, prevarication and political grandstanding. By taking the useless message of “stay home” to thousands of families facing life-threatening violence, hunger or displacement, he reinforced the divisions and misconceptions that the Republican Party uses to mobilize the most racist and xenophobic elements of its base.

As elections heat up, immigration is bringing Republicans and Democrats closer together in the worst possible way — a shared narrative that criminalizes victims of forced migration as the cause of U.S. ills. Texan Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ships thousands of asylum seekers to New York, and Democrat Adams takes up the baton saying they “will destroy New York City.” Politicians in both parties have been mining the Republican-created niche of immigrant-bashing for months.

They portray immigrants as the problem and not the symptom of the problem. But immigration to the United States today is not discretionary; it’s predominantly forced migration, in some cases with whole families leaving overnight to save their lives. Migrants don’t need Adams to tell them about the dangers on the trail — they know. Elaborate networks of internal communication inform constantly regarding the safest routes, what to avoid and how, and where one can find succor and support. It’s critical to survival.

The situation in each country of origin differs somewhat, but the causes of immigration include the deep inequality of the global economy and the direct results of many U.S. foreign policies, including the drug war that detonates violence (Mexico as a heart-breaking case in point), economic sanctions, the promotion of unregulated predatory capitalism and “free trade.” Given their role in the problem, U.S. politicians have the power and the tools to prevent forcing people to flee their homes, but it’s much more politically advantageous to blame the immigrants when they do.

The U.S. press and politicians point to a rise in border crossings — 8,000 apprehensions a day, according to the latest figures — as a “surge” an “invasion,” amid rampant metaphors of immigrants as a “virus” or “plague.” Not only do they misconstrue the reality of migration flows, they also obscure the reality of migrants’ role in society.

Texan Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ships thousands of asylum seekers to New York, and Democrat Adams takes up the baton saying they “will destroy New York City.”

Crossings now are not at a record-high; instead, they mark a return to numbers before the end of Title 42 and measures in May that caused a brief hiatus in migratory flows. Also, U.S. government data shows that more than a quarter of apprehensions are “border recidivism,” the same people making multiple attempts. This is the logical result of increased apprehension efforts, not offering sufficient legal pathways to meet real labor demand, and forcing people to wait in Mexico for delayed asylum processes.

Thanks to press and Republican hype, a growing percentage of the population is “dissatisfied with the level of immigration into the country today,” believing it is too high, according to a recent Gallup poll. Immigrant-aimed mass killings demonstrate that some are violently “dissatisfied.” And yet the perception behind the fear and hatred is fabricated. The United States is not being overrun with migrants that endanger the “American way of life.” A study of census data finds that the number of immigrants in 2022 is two million below the Census Bureau’s prediction for that year and that over the last decade the United States has seen the slowest growth of immigrant share of the population since the 1960s.

But let’s say there were a significant increase in migratory flows to the country. The second point that is tragically wrong about the Adams narrative on immigration is that it poses a threat to Americans. Migrants contribute to every aspect of U.S. society — as taxpayers, neighbors, workers, artists, community members and family.

Studies demonstrate that migrants’ contribution to the U.S. economy has a net positive impact. Republican policies to crack down on undocumented workers are straining state economies, with reports of severe labor shortages coming out of Florida after Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through measures to force undocumented workers out of the state’s labor market. The Chamber of Commerce reports a labor shortage in every state in the country, with reduced immigration a major factor. At what economists agree is U.S. “full employment”, immigrants are not stealing jobs — in fact they are needed for essential jobs that cannot be filled otherwise.

THE EXTERNALIZATION OF THE BORDER

And yet the push to exclude continues, conveniently (for business) consolidating an underground labor market devoid of labor rights, bargaining power or equality. The Biden strategy now goes beyond “securing the border” to measures to “externalize the border” — enlisting countries to the south in stopping migrant flows before they reach the U.S. border. Mexico is the number one partner in doing this.

Mexico has gone from an early policy of issuing humanitarian visas that enabled safe travel to an erratic mix of repression and bureaucratic chaos. The capitulation began in 2019 when Trump threatened tariffs on Mexican goods if the nation didn’t adopt U.S.’ anti-migrant policies, and, if anything, it has intensified under Biden. Although Title 42 and Remain in Mexico policies were lifted, in last month’s agreement with the Biden administration, the government of Mexican President Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador agreed to crack down once again, upping deportations and repatriation flights (especially from its northern border), prohibiting migrants from boarding trains, and deploying more troops to both its northern and southern borders along with intensified persecution in the interior of the country.

Gabriela Hernandez, director of the Mexico City shelter Casa Tochan, notes, “Now the migration enters on foot and leaves on foot, without any document or protection. And it’s not the migrant’s fault. It’s the government’s fault for not wanting to issue documents that would regulate the process. The government is handing the migrants over to organized crime and traffickers on a silver platter.”

Mexico’s border with the United States is testimony to the failure of joint immigration policies, living proof of Mexico’s lack of national sovereignty, and a cartels’ paradise — for extortion, human trafficking, forced recruiting and sexual abuse. The more crackdowns, the worse it gets.

With a wait of an average of four years for asylum hearings to be resolved and a backlog of 2.6 million cases pending, Biden’s government has opened migrant processing centers in Central and South American countries and ordered those countries to block migratory flows. Although Mexico has refused to host a U.S. migrant processing center, the use of the faulty “CBP One” app, developed by the Biden administration to request a hearing and track progress, means that thousands are stuck in Mexico.

“Externalization of borders” is a fancy way of saying that across the globe, wealthy nations are seeking to shirk their international obligations to honor asylum and refugee rights by shunting them off to less-powerful countries. Not only does it violate and often outright deny those rights, it also constitutes a form of hegemonic power over sovereign nations. There is no legal international obligation for Mexico to carry out U.S. border policies. So why does it?

MEXICO IN THE MIDDLE

Trump’s 2019 tariff threat sent shock waves throughout the government and business sector. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), “integration” has meant increased dependency on the U.S. economy. Mexico also holds elections in 2024. Although immigration is not an issue that moves people and the president’s party seems likely to win again, the Mexican president doesn’t want to provoke the U.S. during the volatile electoral period.

Mexico has gone from an early policy of issuing humanitarian visas that enabled safe travel to an erratic mix of repression and bureaucratic chaos.

Lopez Obrador has correctly calculated that pressure from the United States on migration will increase in the run-up to U.S. elections. That’s not a hard call to make with Republicans already calling to bomb Mexican fentanyl labs and send U.S. troops in to attack drug cartels and human traffickers. While rejecting these absurd ideas, the Mexican president recently decided to take the immigration bull by the horns and build his own regional leadership around the issue.

Lopez Obrador insists that Mexico is a transit country. The reality is that it is also a destination, with an explosion of applications for asylum that also encounter an impossible backlog. Programs to rapidly integrate asylum seekers and allow them to work would benefit the economy and reduce human suffering. Mexico also continues to be a sending country. The Mexican government doesn’t talk about it because it’s an embarrassment.

Lopez Obrador hosted an Oct. 22 meeting of regional heads of state to address immigration. It was attended by the presidents of Colombia, Honduras, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti and by representatives of seven countries. The Declaration of Palenque emphasized development in the south, human rights and legal pathways. While it did not indicate a break in Mexico’s support for the U.S. deterrence and border externalization strategy, it creates a possible platform for a regional alternative to criminalization.

But signs point to Mexico’s continued support for the U.S. border deterrence and externalization strategy, while demanding foreign aid and investment.

Although some plans for humanitarian support were discussed, there was no call for a major shift in the U.S.-imposed strategy of detention, deportation and deterrence. The group followed Mexico’s lead by demanding investment in the region, with no criticism of the Biden policy of private investment that exacerbates push factors including extractivist megaprojects that displace local communities, environmentally-destructive development like factory farms that contribute to climate change, and corporate-land and resource grabs.

So what could be done? The militarized, supply-side approach to immigration is as doomed in immigration control as it is in drug control. “Deterrence” implies options that people don’t have. Thousands of interviews note that migrants would stay home if they could.

While immigration is by definition a regional phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that regional approaches defined by who holds the most power (the US) are the answer. Each country has to take responsibility for what happens within its own borders. In the United States, it’s not just the U.S. immigration system that is broken. It’s a social system that fails to provide minimal wellbeing to everyone. This focus means resisting the temptation to divide communities into us vs. them. When considering housing needs, place a policy priority on affordable housing for all. When asylum seekers need work permits, include an effort to provide work permits for all immigrants, including those already in the labor force performing vital functions, as became strikingly evident in the pandemic.

As Oscar Chacon, director of the nationwide immigrant organization Alianza Americas, points out, “We could easily imagine a different hemisphere-wide approach, one that starts with the positive contributions migrants make but also recognizes that these migratory flows, far from being undesirable, are highly necessary.” Chacon in the United States and Hernandez in Mexico both stress the need for governments to get together with migrant organizations, labor leaders and groups that provide humanitarian services to talk about what the real needs are and how to meet them together.

The federal government and U.S. mayors cannot spearhead a serious effort to find a regional solution to the immigration problem if they can’t or won’t fix their own problems. It’s simply not true that there is no room in the United States — or in Mexico — for people who need a safe place to work and raise their families. It’s false in demographic terms, it’s false in economic terms, it’s illegal and it’s morally reprehensible.

Laura Carlsen, is the director of MIRA: Feminisms and Democracies, A Mexico-City based think tank. For more, see americas.org. For more of her writing for The Indypendent, click here.

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