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Will Mexico’s Left-Wing President Help Trump’s Immigration Agenda?

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s promise to help migrants will be tested by Trump’s belligerent demands.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador attends a ceremony in which he received a ceremonial staff from Indigenous people at the Zocalo Square in Mexico City on December 1, 2018.

In his first press conference since taking office, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as “AMLO” for short, said he is working with the United States and Canada to create a three-way investment plan to stem migration from Central America and southern Mexico.

López Obrador, perhaps Mexico’s most left-wing president in modern history, took office Saturday after winning a landslide victory in July. He promised “a peaceful and orderly transition, but one that is deep and radical … because we will end the corruption and impunity that prevent Mexico’s rebirth.”

A former mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador pledged on the campaign trail to place a cap on public officials’ pay, including cutting his own salary and nixing the presidential jet, while ending privatization schemes that have deepened the country’s economic divide.

Many Mexicans’ hopes for real change are high after decades of corruption at all levels of government and high rates of violence. The new president now faces a trial by fire in achieving his ambitious domestic agenda.

But first, López Obrador must address the ongoing crisis of thousands of asylum-seeking Central American migrants stuck in limbo in Tijuana and other border cities as the United States deliberately delays processing asylum applications while closing ports of entry to potential refugees.

Mexico’s new Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Sunday to discuss the countries’ “shared commitment to address our common challenges and opportunities for the future,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

The recent announcement and talks come amid tensions after Mexico’s foreign ministry demanded a full investigation into U.S. Border Patrol agents’ firing of tear gas and rubber bullets at migrant families the Sunday prior. Meanwhile, the number of migrants at the border continues to rise even as conditions at shelters housing them deteriorate.

President Trump is pressuring López Obrador to accept a deal to keep migrants in Mexico while they await the outcome of their asylum claims. In exchange, Mexican officials hope the U.S. will cooperate with their campaign for a new “Marshall Plan” to spur development in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — akin to how U.S. helped to rebuild Europe after World War II — and are hoping for a $20 billion U.S. investment.

Mexico, meanwhile, will pump money into the country’s poorer south while offering work visas to Central American migrants heading north. According to the Mexican Interior Ministry, nearly 700 recently arrived asylum seekers have already been granted humanitarian visas to live and work in the country, and nearly 11,000 Central Americans have been repatriated over the last several weeks.

The Trump administration ultimately wants to turn Mexico into what’s called a “safe third country,” which would require asylum-seeking migrants traveling through to petition for sanctuary in Mexico instead of the US. Short of that, administration officials are asking for potential refugees to await the outcomes of their U.S. claims in Mexico, dubbing their new plan “Remain in Mexico.”

But immigrant rights advocates argue that any such agreement would effectively reverse U.S. asylum policy, making it nearly impossible for potential refugees to actually complete the asylum process. Such a policy would also promote unsafe and irregular migration patterns while doing nothing to address the root causes of migratory pressures, they say.

The Trump administration has since tweaked the plan it originally began discussing with the prior administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto to be more palatable to the incoming left-wing cabinet. Mexican officials have signaled some willingness to accept the administration’s revised Remain in Mexico plan, while treading carefully.

“This is like an extension of the U.S. border to the southern border of Mexico.”

Last week, Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero quickly denied that any formal deal over Remain in Mexico had been struck after it was initially reported in The Washington Post. “We are still against the safe third country, but this theme is something distinct and because of that, we are analyzing it with care,” Ebrard recently told reporters.

For now, the new administration is holding their ground. Whether federal officials will buckle as more migrant caravans arrive at the border, however, remains to be seen.

Desperation in Tijuana

The American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Karen Romero Siu, who is working to provide humanitarian support and social services to migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, including at the now-closed sports complex that served as a shelter, is seeing the migrant crisis playing out up close. She supports development and work visas for migrants but does not want to see any kind of deal formalizing potential refugees’ holdup in Mexico.

“I think it’s a bad idea that Mexico does the dirty work for the United States. I hope the [new] government will not agree to this,” she told Truthout. “This is like an extension of the U.S. border to the southern border of Mexico.”

Before Tijuana officials shut down the sports complex Sunday, Romero Siu described the squalid conditions there, telling Truthout of the foul smells and the buildup of garbage. “It’s not a good place for pregnant women and children to stay.”

Only about 2,000 of the original 6,000 migrants who sought refuge at the shelter have been moved to a new shelter for migrants in the city. Still, Romero Siu remains cautiously optimistic that humanitarian workers and city officials will receive additional aid to support asylum-seeking migrants from the new administration. “I have hope, but I don’t know because the reality when [officials] get into office can sometimes change, so I remain skeptical.”

The migrant situation at the border presents López Obrador with his first test.

Accounts of anti-migrant sentiment in Tijuana have started to crop up in reports on the crisis there. While Romero Siu worries about some legitimate anti-immigrant sentiment among locals in recent days, she warned that emerging narratives about the city turning against its migrants are not completely based in reality. For instance, organizers of recent anti-caravan protests there have been exposed as Nazi sympathizers, and Romero Siu told Truthout she personally witnessed many Americans among the marchers. “Right now, it’s calm, but we have a little group that is stirring up trouble,” she said.

Still, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum recently joined Trump in demonizing the city’s migrants, stoking anti-migrant sentiment among some residents there even while others remain supportive of asylum seekers. Manuel Gastélum has called on the Mexican federal government to take responsibility for housing them.

AMLO’s Balancing Act

The migrant situation at the border presents López Obrador with his first test: to balance his populist and humanitarian promises to help the struggling migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America with demands from an increasingly belligerent Trump administration hell-bent on keeping migrants off U.S. soil.

“[López Obrador] is trying to link his discourse on migration to also his idea of developing the southern part of the country,” said Sergio Daniel Michel Chavez, a Ph.D. student studying Latin American politics at Carleton University. “I think it’s in a way intelligent. He’s taking advantage of the pressing need to offer a long-term solution to those migrating through southern Mexico and Central America.” Linking those needs to the U.S.’s demands may prove an effective way “to get more funding toward his infrastructure projects in the South.”

“There might be an attempt by the Trump administration to do some strong-arming and to try to put the López Obrador administration in their place.”

Yet advocates argue the tradeoff is too dangerous. They say it will likely lead to legal problems in how the Trump administration interprets asylum law in regard to any new agreement. This is especially true for unaccompanied minors with relatives in the U.S., for example. Current asylum law allows for children to join their family members in the U.S., and advocates fear a Remain in Mexico deal will prevent children from reuniting with their relatives. Further, such a system would strain Mexico’s similarly burdened system for processing refugee claims.

López Obrador also faces other pressures, such as those from city officials like Manuel Gastélum faced with housing and supporting asylum seekers.

“This can become a time bomb, especially if more migrants are arriving to these borders here, because resources are limited,” Michel Chavez said. “We can get to a point where it’s not longer sustainable for the government to keep on supporting these large numbers of migrants, and that’s where it would be threatening.” With some ports of entry processing fewer than 100 asylum applications a day, wait times for migrants in Mexico are likely to increase as more caravans arrive, straining resources.

Advocates point to elevated levels of drug cartel violence and routine human rights violations against migrants in border cities as obvious reasons why Mexico should not be deemed a “safe” holding station for potential asylees for months or even years, even under a Remain in Mexico plan.

Moreover, advocates like Pedro Rios, who directs AFSC’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, worry that if López Obrador caves to Trump’s political theatrics in responding to migrant caravans, it could bolster Trump’s push for Congress to fund his border wall. Rios personally witnessed the Border Patrol’s gas attack against migrant families while on the U.S. side of the border November 25.

“There will probably be a honeymoon period between them with the signing of this new NAFTA [on Friday],” Rios said. “But … there might be an attempt by the Trump administration to do some strong-arming and to try to put the López Obrador administration in their place.”

Many advocates remain hopeful. Even in his first few days in office, López Obrador has already drastically departed from his predecessors’ practices, launching a daily address, including a regular update on violence and homicides, and a truth and justice commission to investigate the disappearance of 43 students in the town of Ayotzinapa in 2014. Still, the challenges ahead for the fledgling administration are many.

“For any incoming, new administration that has a different set of ideals, I think it’ll be difficult to make significant changes, especially in the first couple years of the administration,” Rios said.

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