Mexico is facing new challenges as millions of Mexican migrants return from the United States and Central Americans seek asylum and safe passage through the country. Historically, Mexico has been a predominantly immigrant-sending country. Political unrest and violence in Central America, heavy-handed immigration enforcement in the United States, and increased development in Mexico has made Mexico a country of destination, return, and transit. Each of these roles demands a unique, humane, and thorough policy response.
Until recently, Mexico has never had a coherent immigration policy. Past laws, such as the 1974 General Law of Population, focused solely on enforcing criminal penalties for immigrants entering or staying in the country without authorization. Throughout the past decade, however, several reforms to laws and policies have expanded the scope of Mexico’s immigration policy to reflect the realities of the country’s diversifying population. Yet while legislative changes to immigration and asylum laws have been implemented to expand services and protections for immigrants, they have not been sufficient to address the needs of return migrants and Central American asylum-seekers and have revealed large gaps in Mexico’s immigration policies and practices.
Mexico’s response to return migration is falling short
The Mexican government has made efforts to ease the transition of returnees through the creation of several programs and initiatives aimed toward reintegration. For example, the Somos Mexicanos initiative, which the National Institute of Immigration (INM) implemented in 2014, aims to facilitate the reintegration of Mexican nationals, providing them with food, medical attention, toll-free calling, free transportation, and employment assistance upon initial return. While such existing programs and initiatives are a step in the right direction, they have done little to ease the transition of many returnees, who continue to struggle with emotional trauma and lack access to employment, educational opportunities, and the long-term support they need to navigate life in Mexico.
With the government falling short, nonprofits have instead shouldered the responsibility of facilitating successful reintegration by directly working with returnees, providing them with long-term support, and serving as valuable networks. Certain organizations—such as Otros Dreams en Acción, New Comienzos, El Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, and Dream in México—offer free programs that assist returnees in pursuing educational opportunities, searching for jobs, accessing mental health services, securing emergency shelters, obtaining identification documents, and enrolling in mentoring programs. Yet while nonprofits have worked to fill the gaps that exist between the services that government-run programs offer, Mexico is still struggling to keep up with returnees. Moreover, if the Trump administration is allowed to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, stripping immigration status from approximately 700,000 current DACA recipients—nearly 80 percent of whom are from Mexico—the forcible or voluntary return of these long-term U.S. residents to Mexico would overtax the country’s already strained social services.
Central American migration poses another challenge for Mexico
Since early 2018, Mexico has responded to the increased number of Central American migrants with force. In response to pressure from the United States, Mexico has heightened security efforts along its southern border and has detained and deported thousands of Central American migrants. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM), 80,000 Central American migrants were deported from January 2018 through September 2018. In 2017, due to worsening conditions and violence in the Northern Triangle region, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, 14,596 people applied for asylum in Mexico—a 66 percent increase from 2016. Despite this increase, only 1,907 requests were approved in 2017. This surge in asylum claims has placed a strain on the severely understaffed and underfunded Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), the department that processes asylum petitions. A 2016 study documented the difficulties Central American migrants face when seeking asylum in Mexico, including due process violations; obstacles in gaining access to asylum procedures; lack of information about their rights at migration stations; and lack of legal representation during the petition process.
With the arrival of the most recent Honduran caravan, however, Mexico’s response to Central American migration has begun to shift slightly. On October 26, former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a plan called “Estás en tu casa,” or “You are home,” to facilitate the asylum process for those in the caravan. The program will grant migrants official documentation, temporary work permits, medical attention, and access to education for children if they return and file with the INM in Mexico’s southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas. According to the Mexican Office for Domestic Affairs, more than 3,800 migrants have applied for refugee status, nearly 136 Honduran migrants per day have requested assistance to return, and thousands more have chosen to continue toward the United States due to concerns over long wait times and mistrust of Mexican authorities. Asylum-seekers in Tijuana now face extreme backlogs as U.S. Border Patrol only processes 40 to 100 asylum claims a day. As tensions and uncertainty in Tijuana continue to rise, Mexico has increased its efforts in response to a situation that remains both complex and ever-changing.
There is opportunity for meaningful change
While Mexico has taken substantive steps to improve its immigration system, it should continue to partner with both the United States and international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to strengthen its capacity to effectively address surmounting immigration challenges and overhaul the bureaucratic process that continues to make it difficult for returnees to enroll in school, seek employment, and access social services. Mexico would also benefit from collaborating with nonprofit organizations on the ground so that it can better understand the needs of return migrants. Meanwhile, organizations such as COMAR should receive additional resources so that they can efficiently and fairly process and provide refuge to those seeking asylum. Finally, Mexico should work to demilitarize its southern border and build bridges with Central American countries in an effort to encourage meaningful change in the region.
The election of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-populist candidate of the National Regeneration Movement, may also catalyze a change in the way Mexico approaches migration. President López Obrador has been vocal in his critique of Mexico’s security policies, anti-immigration efforts on Mexico’s southern border, and the United States’ involvement in shaping Mexico’s immigration policy. He recently urged the United States, Canada, and Mexico to jointly address the migration influx by investing in development in Northern Triangle countries, though the focus of his immigration policies remains unclear.
Migrants and returnees who seek opportunities, refuge, and safe passage should be met by policies and programs that support their well-being and promote stability. With looming uncertainties in U.S. immigration programs such as DACA, as well as continued instability in the Northern Triangle region, it is critical that the López Obrador administration makes immigration policy a priority. As the new administration settles into office, it should focus not only on reforming its current immigration policies but also on adopting policies that transform the landscape of immigration toward a more humane and orderly system.
Andrea Portillo is an intern for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Joel Martinez and Michael Werz for their contributions to this column.