Mexico City – Guillermo Contreras spent the last 12 years of his life living and working in the United States, but two months ago, as part of the broad crackdown on undocumented migrants by the Trump administration, he was deported and is now in Mexico City trying to rebuild his life.
Contreras – along with other supporters of Otros Dreams en Acción, a grassroots group that works to support people who have been deported or have returned from the US – demonstrated on July 13, 2018, outside a quaint house in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood that is serving as the office of Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“López Obrador says he wants to change this system, so we’ve come to ask him, if this is true, that he work with the community of people who have been deported or have returned,” Contreras told Truthout.
The Mexican president-elect was meeting with a high-ranking delegation of US government officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and senior White House official Jared Kushner. Pompeo told a press conference that the courtesy visit by the US delegation was meant to show the “deep importance” of the US-Mexico relationship to US President Donald Trump. Representatives said they addressed key issues in the bilateral relationship, including security, trade, economic development and migration.
On the campaign trail, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is commonly known, made a number of promises aimed at the community of Mexicans living abroad, as well as those who have been deported. Key among these was his proposal to stimulate economic development within Mexico in order to dissuade people from leaving the country for economic reasons.
That proposal is music to the ears of the administration of US President Donald Trump, who has pursued a nationalistic domestic economic policy that has broken with the free-trade orthodoxy of recent years. But Trump also crafted a highly antagonistic relationship with Mexico and Mexicans, vilifying a country and its people in order to rally his far-right and xenophobic political base.
That antagonism, and more specifically the issue of migration, has largely defined the relationship between the United States and Mexico over the recent period. But political leaders in the United States and Mexico have indicated they are interested in treating the change in government in Mexico as an opportunity to repair that strained relationship.
However, in addition to stepping into a fraught relationship with Mexico’s most important trade partner, López Obrador has inherited a litany of problems, including a sluggish economy, record levels of violence and a human rights crisis.
“Those who left [Mexico] did not do so because they wanted to; they did so because [the Mexican government] abandoned the rural sector,” said Judith Meléndrez Bayardo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who also participated in the demonstration. “Because of violence, they are forced to go to the United States.”
Expectations are high, and though people like Contreras are hopeful, they understand that López Obrador faces a tall order.
“The majority of migrants leave because of their economic situation,” Contreras told Truthout. “López Obrador won’t be able to turn the economy around in two years — it is impossible. People will continue to migrate, but they can create employment here so that people don’t need to do it.”
Meléndrez added, “If we are able to have dignified conditions for all Mexicans, I imagine that our compatriots will not have to leave — that is a change of opinion that is very important, to attend to the root causes [of why people leave].”
López Obrador’s Commitment to Mexicans Abroad
In a statement, Otros Dreams en Acción said President Enrique Peña Nieto had failed to live up to the commitments his government made to Mexicans abroad. As part of an effort to attend to Mexicans in the US, the Peña Nieto administration allocated more resources for Mexican consulates in the United States, but Otros Dreams en Acción said that investment failed to deliver any real results for migrants abroad.
Otros Dreams en Acción also accused the Mexican government of failing to attend to the needs of those who have been deported or have returned.
“The government continues to lie. There is no help for us as people who have been deported,” said Contreras.
Many returning migrants struggle to re-establish themselves in Mexico. They sometimes lack the necessary documentation to even open a bank account inside the country, and Mexico’s school system often will not recognize the studies they completed while abroad. Contreras said he found that public officials lacked any sympathy or understanding for people in his situation.
Rebecca Watts, a program associate with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Truthout that her research on the reintegration of deported migrants suggests that migrants have largely depended on informal ad hoc social networks upon returning to Mexico. She said those who do not have access to these kinds of networks often face social stigma, isolation and even discrimination.
Otros Dreams en Acción has called on the López Obrador government to make sure that migrants’ groups are at the table in order to ensure that their specific needs are addressed.
Given the fact that the Trump administration is unlikely to abandon its “zero-tolerance” policy and seems certain to continue with its effort to deport people, support for returning migrants will only grow in importance.
In addition to stimulating economic development, López Obrador has committed to supporting migrants in their reintegration process. He has also pledged to fundamentally change the role played by Mexican consulates in the United States, turning them into “special prosecutors” that are charged with the protection and defense of migrants. Watts suggested that migrants would greatly benefit from these kinds of proposals.
Watts also agreed that López Obrador’s proposal to stimulate job growth inside Mexico was the best strategy to mitigate migration but argued that the president-elect will need to contend with Mexico’s 40-year legacy of neoliberal economic policy.
“In Mexico, the persistent sluggish growth, poverty and inequality are all rooted in a set of important economic policy choices,” Watts said.
A Radical Break With Neoliberalism
Elected on a leftist platform, López Obrador’s victory in many ways represented a radical break from the economic policies pursued by Mexico’s political elites.
Shortly after taking office in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto signed a comprehensive “pact for Mexico” with the country’s then-dominant political parties aimed at promoting economic growth, a reduction in inequality and promoting investment.
A recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that five years on, the pact largely failed to meet its goals. That report traces Mexico’s woes back to the decision to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Negotiations surrounding NAFTA represent another major sticking point in US-Mexico relations, although the president-elect and the outgoing Mexican administration have agreed to present a united front in future talks.
The perception inside Mexico is that President Enrique Peña Nieto has allowed Trump to largely dictate the direction of talks. Mexicans are likely unwilling to tolerate the type of servile attitude displayed by the outgoing president, and people like Meléndrez expect the new government to stand up to US bullying.
“We shouldn’t worry. The North Americans have a loud bark, [but] I think we’re a country that is much more important than they care to admit. But because they’re arrogant and some governments let themselves be humiliated, they continue to humiliate us,” said Meléndrez.
She added that the major difference between Peña Nieto and López Obrador is the latter’s strong mandate. Peña Nieto narrowly won the 2012 election amid accusations of electoral fraud, whereas López Obrador won with over 53 percent of the vote and all his rivals conceded defeat on election night.
She believes that López Obrador’s election represents the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. López Obrador himself has called his victory the beginning of a “grand transformation,” and Meléndrez emphasizes his popular mandate as a source of enormous legitimacy.
López Obrador’s closeness to the Mexican people has been repeatedly documented and it is a relationship that seems to be deepening.
A Delicate Balancing Act
In an effort to appease demands being made by the US administration, López Obrador’s pick for security chief floated the idea of creating a border protection force for the country’s southern border but was forced to backtrack after outcry from migrants and migrants rights groups.
“We don’t want (border police) like they have in the United States…. We’re different, we’re a distinct people, we have different cultures, we have different customs and our tradition has been to welcome citizens from other countries,” Contreras told Truthout.
Meléndrez argues that López Obrador will have to regularly face these kinds of dilemmas and balance competing interests, but his strong mandate and popular mobilization will allow him to pursue issues that are in the interest of Mexico’s poor and working class.
For now, the relationship with the United States seems to be on more secure footing, but that will surely be tested as time goes on and López Obrador is forced to make decisions that will put him at odds with policy makers in the United States.
Although few details of the meeting between President-elect López Obrador and the US delegation were released, both parties issued statements praising the meeting. However, controversial topics like Trump’s proposed border wall were not discussed.
“Hard to say how that will play out going forward,” said Watts. “The US and Mexico have very different perspectives on some of these topics.”