The Biden administration is leaning on Mexico to help reduce the number of migrants showing up at the southern border in the face of few and unpalatable policy options stateside.
The White House’s push is straining relations with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who played a key role in implementing former President Trump’s most stringent border policies under threat of tariffs.
López Obrador, who met in Mexico City this week with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, is negotiating from a position of strength because border security has grown into a major U.S. electoral issue ahead of 2024.
“[President Biden] is definitely hoping that Mexico will do something that pushes the numbers down for a few months at least,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Border encounters are reaching all-time highs: In December, the Border Patrol is on track to process a record number of migrants who have crossed the border between ports of entry.
In the first 27 days of the month, Border Patrol processed 225,000 migrants — its highest count ever — according to a report by CBS News.
That’s despite the Biden administration ratcheting up measures intended to deter future migrants from coming to the United States. In its annual report issued Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) touted a 19.5 percent jump in arrests of noncitizens, a majority of whom weren’t accused of criminal actions.
Border crossings stuck to an upward trend even though ICE conducted 170,590 arrests, 96,768 of which were purely administrative, meaning the detainees had no criminal convictions or charges, and conducted 142,580 removals of foreign nationals.
And U.S. border officials are running on fumes, dealing with those record numbers without extra funding the Biden administration requested from Congress, which would have added 1,300 Border Patrol jobs and 1,600 asylum officers.
That funding was included in a supplemental budget request paired with aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that ultimately petered out in Senate negotiations ahead of Christmas because of disagreement over border policy changes requested by Republicans and opposed by many Democrats.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who along with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) is leading the talks, said Friday the group has been meeting virtually and will return to the table in the new year, according to a report by Politico.
But those talks are in danger of becoming embroiled in the larger budget fight, as Congress stares down dual government shutdown deadlines in late January and early February.
That gridlock has left Biden with few levers to pull to quickly reduce the number of migrants presenting themselves at the border, a metric for border enforcement success that the administration adopted to the chagrin of immigrant advocates.
Enter López Obrador.
The Mexican president, a loud advocate of addressing the root causes of migration, has nonetheless been a key enforcer of migration controls for the Trump and Biden administrations.
Mexico’s National Guard, a militarized police force created by López Obrador, has turned its focus away from the country’s organized crime crisis and toward migration controls.
“Root causes is a long-term solution, it’s not going to do anything really between now and, say, 2028 at the very earliest. So in the short term, yeah, he’s using deterrence just like everyone else — all these checkpoints, all those National Guard controls,” said Isacson.
According to an analysis of Mexican government data by national newspaper El Economista, the National Guard’s criminal arrest rates dropped 60 percent from 2021 to 2022, while migrant “rescues” grew 432.5 percent in the same period.
Mexican officials dating to previous administrations use the term “rescue” for interactions between migrants and law enforcement; those interactions can include literal rescues from smuggling organizations or physically dangerous situations, but they almost always involve a review of migrants’ documents and can result in deportations.
Through the National Guard and controls at its southern border, Mexico has some influence over the volume of migrants reaching the United States, but López Obrador’s sharpest tool is his ability to decide whether or not he’ll take third-country deportees or expellees from the United States, cooperating on policies such as Title 42 and “remain in Mexico.”
In a sign of the kind of deterrence Biden can expect from López Obrador, Mexican immigration officials bulldozed a migrant encampment in Matamoros, a city across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, as Blinken and company met with López Obrador almost 500 miles away in Mexico City.
Mexican officials said the camp, which once housed about 1,500 people, was empty, though the migrants dodging the bulldozer said about 200 people remained, according to an Associated Press report.
Neither the Mexican nor U.S. governments offered details about the negotiations between López Obrador and Blinken, instead issuing an almost-boilerplate joint communiqué about the visit that itself created some friction between the two sides.
After Mexico published its version of the joint statement, the White House published a nearly identical version, except that it included the phrase “democratic decline” as a root cause of irregular migration.
By diplomatic protocol, joint communiqués are agreed to word-for-word after negotiation on language.
At the table, U.S. officials did not ask to include “democratic decline” — a phrase Mexico’s opposition understood as a reference to López Obrador’s practices — and uploaded a corrected version of the statement, without the offending phrase, hours later.
A National Security Council spokesperson attributed the gaffe to a “version control issue.”
The diplomatic faux pas highlighted the areas of disagreement between the two countries — mainly on democracy and relations with Cuba and Venezuela — and how far the Biden administration is willing to bend on those issues to get its desired results at the border.
But if those results come through asylum or transit restrictions, whether they’re produced through Mexican collaboration or policy changes forced by Congress, they’re unlikely to have a lasting impact.
Large U.S. border policy shifts tend to drive down border crossings for a period, as was the case in June, when migrant apprehensions dropped significantly after the end of Title 42, but usually bounce back.
And those asylum and transit restrictions can have permanent effects on the migrants on the receiving end.
“There’s nothing here that is better policy. It’s going to hurt people. Six to eight months after it happens, it’ll be a wash anyway, as migrants and smugglers find new ways around it,” said Isacson.
“All this will do — and you’ve seen this repeatedly — is push the numbers down for a few months. Buy a little breathing space.”
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