El PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Donald Trump rode anger against illegal migration all the way to the White House in 2016. He accompanied his “Build the wall!” campaign rally chants with a promise to make Mexico pay for the border barrier.
Then in mid-2019 he sent shockwaves through the Mexican economy by threatening to impose a 25% tariff if that country did not help him stop a flow of migrants from Central America that threatened to spiral out of control. Mexico quickly capitulated. It threw together a National Guard and sent the soldiers to turn back migrant caravans at the Guatemalan border and patrol the levees of the Rio Grande in northern border cities like Juarez.
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on probable changes to immigration policy and the U.S.-Mexico relationship once Joe Biden takes office as the 46th President of the United States
“Mexico has been placed between a rock and a hard place” as far as helping the United States deal with its immigration issues, said Charles Boehmer, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“So, Mexico did not pay for the wall, but Mexico became the wall,” added Tony Payan, director of the U.S.-Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
With Trump defeated at the polls, some would think Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would welcome the chance to see him replaced with someone else. Anybody else. But that’s not the case, political observers say.
Lopez Obrador is refusing to recognize Biden’s victory and earlier this week he said publicly that Mexico would not be the “instrument of another country” and harped on the importance of Mexican sovereignty. His posturing is raising concerns on both sides of the border about a possible setback in the binational relationship.
“(He) is making an important diplomatic blunder by not congratulating Mr. Biden. That has to be put on the table very clearly,” Payan said. “I think he’s going to be very reluctant to cooperate with the Biden administration.”
That could get in the way of dealing with pressing binational issues such as COVID-19 containment and dealing with thousands of third-country asylum seekers lingering on the Mexican border. That will depend on whether the Mexican president’s stance is just form or substance, observers said.
“It’s a little bit unclear how Biden and (Lopez Obrador) will get along in the sense that there are some aspects of policy statements where AMLO can be very similar to President Trump in regard to style. It will be more a function of what’s in Mexico’s interest,” Boehmer said.
Payan concurs that, despite the tension at the height of the immigration crisis, Lopez Obrador identifies with Trump and may be grieving that he lost reelection.
“He found in Trump a kindred spirit,” Payan said. “They’re very similar. They create enemies, they attack the media, they attack the opposition, they polarize society. They’re almost a mirror image of each other in their political behavior. I think AMLO is sad to see Trump go.”
Ariel Ruiz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said Lopez Obrador’s stance on the U.S. presidential election hasn’t gone unnoticed in American political circles.
“On the U.S. side, progressives and Democrats are seeing this as something off-putting,” Ruiz said. But he added that whether or not the two leaders like each other, the fact is that they have to work together.
“No matter what they say right now, I think the commitment on both sides is going to continue to have a fruitful and productive relationship. There is no other way around it,” he said. “Mexico depends on the U.S. economically just as the U.S. does, and there’s multiple social cultural and historical ties on both sides of the border that make it virtually impossible to separate both economies and societies.”
Ruiz said Lopez Obrador, known in Mexico by his name’s acronym of AMLO, might be being cautious so as to not create problems with Trump during the last months of his administration. And he also may be thinking about his own election fraud claims in Mexico’s 2006 presidential election.
Biden, Lopez Obrador must tackle migrant challenge
Come late January, political observers are expecting Biden to quickly move to change at least some Trump immigration policies decried by those who voted him to the presidency.
Facing a Republican Senate, they say it’s unlikely that he’ll spearhead major legislation like comprehensive immigration reform. He might not even have the votes to provide definitive legal status for young migrants known as “Dreamers,” particularly if Trump sticks around trying to influence the Republican Party’s 2022 midterm elections, backing candidates in the primaries that are immigration hardliners, observers said.
But like Barack Obama and Trump before him, Biden can use executive orders and federal rulemaking to end child separations at the border, maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and give asylum seekers their day in court, observers say. He will also have to deal with a post-COVID-19 migrant surge the current administration is warning about should its immigration policies be reversed.
That will have direct repercussions on Mexico and will force Biden and Lopez Obrador to work together.
“In terms of immigration, there certainly is going to be some changes — some short term, some long term,” Ruiz said. “The border wall will no longer be a priority and thus one would expect that to end and it could end very quickly. We would expect that (Remain in Mexico) would be reversed, not in the short term but gradually […] to not stir another migration flow to the United States.”
That means Biden will still need Mexico to assist in managing the asylum seekers stuck in its territory as well as any future migrant surges or caravans.
“I think Mexico, on its own terms, is going to continue to have the National Guard Patrol its southern border, the northern border and the interior,” Ruiz said. “You will see enforcement to continue to occur in Mexico and the United States. I don’t think a caravan is going to be able to transit Mexico as they did early on in the Lopez Obrador administration. I think they believe it’s in their best interests to have security as well.”
Boehmer added that COVID-19 is a disincentive for many migrants to travel now, not just for health reasons but because there are fewer jobs in the United States to covet. However, gangs, drug violence and lawlessness persist in Central American. “If the threat of violence is greater than (the fear of) COVID, people will still come to seek asylum,” he said.
Migration has ebbs and flows, but by March or April of next year, it will become clear if more migrants feel encouraged to make their way north and see how a new U.S. administration will treat them.
Migration has been going on in the region for a long time. Immigration will continue to be a shared concern and a shared responsibility between Mexico and the United States.
“Whether there is a third or fourth wave coming to the United States, it’s not just Mexico and the U.S. that have to do more to manage migration,” Ruiz said.
That means addressing the root causes of migration — in essence, trying to eliminate factors such as poverty that force people to leave their homes and head for the United States. In that sense, the U.S. and Mexico must invest more in Central America and encourage the leaders of those countries to participate in a regional solution, Ruiz said.