Mexico to US: You think caravans are tough for you?

Jose Torres/Reuters
A woman gets a picture taken by an official of the National Migration Institute in Acacoyagua, Mexico, on March 27. She and other migrants are registering for humanitarian visas to cross the country on their way to the United States.
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When it comes to reducing immigration, the White House has a favorite theme: Mexico needs to step up. The United States’ southern neighbor should play a larger role slowing the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers toward the U.S. border, President Donald Trump has insisted, even tweeting threats to close down the border.

But the uptick in “caravans” has overwhelmed Mexico, too, and observers say the country appears poised to crack down – despite the new Mexican administration’s initial promises of a warmer welcome for migrants. Mexican towns have struggled to accommodate thousands of people in one swoop, and the government has cut budgets for its asylum program and federal migration institute.

Why We Wrote This

In the White House’s vision, Mexico itself should be a “wall,” blocking migrants from reaching the U.S. border in the first place. The country may be growing more willing to do that – but for its own reasons.

Caravans “have had a terrible effect on Mexican public opinion,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, who studies Mexican media coverage of migration. That’s “creating fertile ground for Trump’s pressure on Mexico,” he adds.

The conversation on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years has focused on Mr. Trump’s desire to build a wall. But moving forward, Professor Bravo predicts, Mexicans “will be the ones that stop Central American migrants – not a wall.”

Central American migrants and asylum-seekers traveling in large groups across Mexico and arriving at the United States border have drawn ire from U.S. officials and inundated Customs and Border Protection and immigration courts. 

But the uptick in “caravans” has overwhelmed Mexicans, too.

Migrant caravans have long been regular fixtures on the northward path, typically annual events. Since last October's 6,000-person-strong caravan, a handful of others have followed, drawing attention to a human flow through the region that's been growing for years, albeit more quietly. More than 2,000 people walked together in January, and several groups followed in March, including one that numbered roughly 2,500.

Why We Wrote This

In the White House’s vision, Mexico itself should be a “wall,” blocking migrants from reaching the U.S. border in the first place. The country may be growing more willing to do that – but for its own reasons.

People joining caravans say they offer greater safety than traveling alone. And activists see caravans as a form of protest, not only against home governments failing to provide security or support human rights, but also against Mexican officials making it possible for widespread abuses to occur along the migratory path for decades.

But over the past six months, media attention around caravans has created shifts in public opinions of migrants here. The caravans present logistical challenges for local governments and communities, forced to accommodate an influx of thousands of people in one swoop. They’ve raised concerns, founded or not, about criminal infiltration and human trafficking. 

A central message from President Donald Trump and his administration – including former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, one of multiple top officials at the Department of Homeland Security who resigned this week – has been the need for Mexico to play a larger role in stopping the flow of refugees and migrants before they can reach the U.S. Earlier this spring, Mr. Trump tweeted, then walked back, threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But observers say Mexico appears poised to crack down on the mostly Central American migrants and families arriving at its own doorstep, anyway, despite new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s initial stance as pro-migrant rights.

“I understand the strategy behind caravans, but Mexicans aren’t used to this,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), who is working on an analysis of how Mexican media covered Central American migration between 2008 and 2018.

Caravans “have had a terrible effect on Mexican public opinion, which is creating fertile ground for Trump’s pressure on Mexico” to clamp down harder on migration here, he says. “Public opinion is moving toward supporting the very same measures that Americans are pressuring us for.”

Mixed messages

President López Obrador came into office promising work opportunities for Central American migrants in Mexico and expedited visas – moves that incentivized migration, according to Irineo Mujica, a migrant-rights activist who works with the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which accompanied the October 2018 caravan as it moved through Mexico.

Yet in recent weeks, Mexico has announced seemingly contradictory initiatives, such as sending forces to “contain” the Tehuantepec isthmus in southern Mexico – essentially shutting off the flow of migrants from moving north. The government has also cut the budgets for Mexico’s asylum program and its federal migration institute, despite recent upticks in migration.

“The caravans have been used as a political tool in the U.S. and in Mexico,” says Mr. Mujica. “This administration is criminalizing migration in a really subtle way.” 

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Mexico. President Donald Trump is cutting nearly $500 million in aid to Central America to reduce immigration, but many observers say the cuts will prompt more immigration, not less.

Rhetoric used by government officials has – intentionally or not – demonized caravans or made locals less sympathetic to migrants, observers say. There have been warnings to residents about the potential for criminals to infiltrate caravans (echoing statements from the U.S. administration) and suggestions that there are kidnappers and organ traffickers in the mix. Some leaders have outright said they won’t allow future caravans to pass through their communities.

But it’s not just the government influencing public opinion.

Mr. Bravo, who teaches in the journalism department at CIDE, says media attention toward migration in 2018 was “off the charts,” compared with previous inflection points, like 2010 and 2014. And compared with previous peaks, public opinion of the caravans has been much more negative.

He says his team is still analyzing data for their forthcoming report, but that it suggests Mexicans sympathize when migrants are portrayed as victims of organized crime (as was the case in 2010), or when child migrants are unaccompanied (as in 2014), but not when migrants are depicted as “caravans breaking into the country.”

According to a poll published this month in the Mexican daily El Universal, headlined “Mexicans don’t want more migrants,” 62.5% of Mexicans don’t agree with the government allowing caravans of Central Americans to enter the country and give them refuge. That’s up from 37.8% back in October 2018.

Turning point ahead? 

From rural communities in southern Chiapas state scraping together resources to provide weary Central Americans food and water, to a border city revamping a former factory to accommodate thousands of people, many Mexicans initially gave caravans a warm welcome. Today, a lot of their support is waning – or at least strained.

The border city of Piedras Negras, across from Texas, found itself scrambling in February to accommodate roughly 2,000 migrants in a former government storage space – equipping it with an industrial kitchen, setting up running water and electricity, and implementing safety protocols – in 48 hours.

“This was an unprecedented event” for the city, says José Andrés Sumano, a researcher in the cultural studies department at the College of the Northern Border’s Matamoros campus, who contributed to a case study on the situation in Piedras Negras.

He believes that even if Mexico’s federal government wasn’t under U.S. pressure to crack down on migration, local politicians and Mexican citizens would be making the demand themselves. 

“To support a caravan, you need resources. And the federal government isn’t in a position to put money toward this,” Mr. Sumano says.

Mr. Bravo agrees. The conversation on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years may have focused on U.S. desire to build a wall. But moving forward, he predicts Mexicans “will be the ones that stop Central American migrants – not a wall.”

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