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Familiar Avalos: AMLO, Trump, and the Caravan

On the American side of the border hysteric sensationalism has greeted the news that a caravan made up of a few thousand migrants is traveling through Mexico on its way to the United States. Unfounded claims that the caravan is carrying smallpox and leprosy or harboring “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” preceded President Donald Trump’s decision to deploy 5,800 troops in response to what he has dubbed an “invasion.” Trump has eyed a plan to deny asylum to the caravan’s members, and has also threatened to make unspecified cuts in foreign aid to the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Mexico has responded ambivalently. Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, now in its final month, enlisted help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in processing around 2,700 asylum requests. However, it also authorized the Federal Police to keep close tabs on the caravan, leading to a few violent skirmishes the day they crossed Mexico’s southern border. Mexican authorities have focused on encouraging the migrants to apply for asylum rather than deporting them. But there have been efforts to slow the caravan’s progress—the group’s coordinators accused the Mexican government of blocking their plan to hire several buses on November 1.

Mexico faces an uncomfortable dilemma: should it disband the caravan to appease the U.S., or practice the empathy it preaches when Mexicans migrate north? President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will assume office on December 1, promised on the campaign trail that his government was “not going to do the dirty work of any foreign government.” Trump and López Obrador have expressed radically different views on immigration, and the rest of the caravan’s journey could provide a litmus test for their willingness to explore a change of course together.

Trump’s stance on immigration is central to his political message. The construction of a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was one of his first and most infamous campaign promises, and his ongoing search to fund it since assuming office has involved both cancelled meetings with Peña Nieto and government shutdowns. Trump has consistently antagonized Mexican officials, describing them as “unwilling or unable to stop undocumented migration” and asserting Mexico’s obligation to pay for his wall. He has threatened to derail the Mexican-American relationship over immigration, recently tweeting that “the assault on our Southern Border, including the Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in, is far more important to me, as President, than trade or the USMCA,” the recently negotiated trade deal that will replace NAFTA if ratified.

But Trump’s rhetoric ignores what Mexico already does to halt undocumented migration from Central America. Under Peña Nieto, Mexico has significantly ramped up its deportation of Central American migrants, deporting more people than did the U.S. every year since 2015, deporting 82,000 last year alone. The future of this strategy under López Obrador is unclear, as he has pledged to change course out of concerns over both Mexico’s sovereignty and the migrants’ rights. But his alternative does not merely entail decreased deportations—he has proposed an unprecedented work visa program for migrants and a trilateral project with the U.S. and Canada to promote economic development in Central America. López Obrador is eager to work with Trump, and he pitched his ideas to the American president on their first phone call together, the day after López Obrador clinched the presidency.

At a recent speech in Chiapas that coincided with the migrant caravan’s passage through the state, López Obrador spoke of the need for such programs: “He who leaves his village does not do so out of pleasure, but out of necessity.”

Indeed, members of the migrant caravan have cited unemployment and gang violence as the deciding factors in their decisions to leave their countries of origin behind. Most members of the caravan come from the countries of the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These three countries all have homicide rates that are among the world’s top ten. Given this violence, it is unsurprising that the proportion of all persons apprehended at the U.S. southern border that are from the Northern Triangle has risen dramatically in recent years, from 13 percent in 2010 to 42 percent in 2016. Although the Peña Nieto adopted more punitive measures and increased deportations in response, the migrants kept coming.

It is unclear how the rest of the caravan’s journey will play out. An earlier caravan that traveled across Mexico in April took thirty days to reach the U.S. border, but was reduced to around 150 members from a peak of 1,200 by the time it got there, as many chose to abandon the main group to either increase their chances of crossing the border undetected or to stay in Mexico. The current caravan is down to around 4,000 members from a high of 7,000. At the time of writing, it still has 1,748 miles to go before it reaches Tijuana, its intended final destination, having just departed Mexico City on November 10.

Regardless of the state in which it reaches the U.S., the caravan itself is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things—hundreds of thousands of migrants are apprehended at the southern border every year, far outnumbering what just happens to be a particularly large group of them. Migrants are pouring out of the Northern Triangle because it has become unlivable, and if nothing is done to curb the region’s intense violence, people will continue to leave it. Under pressure from the Obama administration, Peña Nieto improved Mexico’s immigration enforcement, but time has shown that this is not an issue that will be solved with enforcement. Under Trump, the U.S. has doubled down on its own immigration enforcement, and Mexico has stayed the course begun earlier in Peña Nieto’s term. López Obrador has expressed a desire to reimagine Mexico’s approach to immigration, and, crucially, he has emphasized that he wants to convince Trump to collaborate.   

Hopefully, the caravan will inspire the U.S. and Mexico to re-evaluate how they approach immigration enforcement. Substantial change will only be made if the root causes of the issue are addressed, and López Obrador’s proposal could bring about a groundbreaking joint initiative to help stabilize Central America. Both the U.S. and Mexico have a sovereign right to secure their borders, but solely focusing on disbanding caravans and deporting immigrants will not stem the flow of the Northern Triangle’s migrants.