Trump’s Attacks on Migrant Caravan Underscore How the U.S. Outsources Immigration Enforcement to Mexico

Mexico's work staunching the northbound flow of migrants is supported by U.S. security assistance — despite human rights abuses.

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2014 file photo, immigration officials remove Central American migrants from a northbound freight train during an after midnight raid by federal police in San Ramon, Mexico. Following a surge in child migrants reaching the U.S. border in 2014, Mexican authorities said Tuesday, March 3, 2015 that they staged more than 150 raids over the last year on the train known as "La Bestia" that rolled toward the U.S. border crowded with hundreds of Central American migrants. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
Immigration officials remove Central American migrants from a northbound freight train during an after midnight raid by federal police in San Ramon, Mexico in Aug. 29, 2014. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The migrant and refugee caravan traveling through Mexico continued its northbound trek on Wednesday, heading towards Mexico City after temporarily stopping in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they regrouped amid a flood of attention lavished on their journey. Organized by a migrant activist collective called Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people are participating in the caravan. National media outlets from the U.S. embedded on the trip. Eventually, President Donald Trump tweeted about the migrants, denouncing the caravan with his characteristic xenophobic vitriol.

Trump focused his ire on the Mexican government: “Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S.,” he tweeted. A day later, however, Trump changed his tune, recognizing Mexico’s crackdown on immigration. “I told Mexico yesterday that, because of the fact that their laws are so strong, they can do things about [migration], that — hard to believe — the United States can’t,” Trump said in a speech.

The dueling statements capture the president’s volatility, but also speak to the dynamics that underlie U.S. immigration policy. Though the American right uses Mexico as a foil in its attacks on immigration, Mexico has, for years, been taking action to stop migration. And these measures can be seen as part of a successful bid by the U.S. to outsource immigration enforcement to its southern neighbor. The Mexican government — replete with a history of human rights violations — is staunching migrant flows before they even approach the U.S. border.

“Mexico always had a policy of detaining and deporting Central American migrants, especially in the far south of the country,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, a research and advocacy group. “But they stepped it up a lot under U.S. pressure.”

Mexico’s measures against migrants can be seen as part of a successful bid by the U.S. to outsource immigration enforcement to its southern neighbor.

Underscoring the cooperation, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen visited Mexico last week for talks with her counterparts. A DHS press release noted that both sides of the dialogue “expressed concerns with migration flows.” After her return to the U.S., Nielsen participated in an immigration policy meeting at the White House on Monday and, the same day, Tweeted, “Working with Mexican officials to address the yearly illegal alien caravan. Exploring all options.”

The pressure on Mexico to cooperate with U.S. immigration policy ramped up under former President Barack Obama, in response to a 2014 surge in Central American migration. Through its National Institute of Migration, the main agency that deals with migrants, the Mexican government announced a Southern Border Program in 2014, which saw an increase in security operations, apprehensions, and deportations of migrants heading north. In tandem, the program was supposed to provide for economic development in southern Mexican states, but much of that support has yet to materialize, according to Isacson.

The current state of the program is unclear. Although the Southern Border Program was never formally called off, some activities that fell under its original broad scope appear to have been incorporated into other projects.

U.S. aid for Mexico’s crackdown on migrants, however, continued to flow. In 2017, the departments of Defense and State implemented an $88 million program to increase Mexican immigration authorities’ capacity to collect migration data and share it with DHS, according to a WOLA report. The two departments are also funding a $75 million project to improve communications between Mexican agencies near the southern border. (As The Intercept previously reported, the U.S. government has also been increasing its Defense Department funding to Mexico for security assistance. State Department funding previously used to support Mexican capabilities is going down, while Pentagon funding is increasing.)

“There’s a plan, which must be pretty advanced now, to put biometric kiosks in several of the official border crossings,” Isacson told The Intercept. “If you cross at Ciudad Hidalgo now” — a city on the Mexico-Guatemala border — “there is something that looks at your fingerprints, maybe takes your photo, and sends the data to a central database in Mexico City that is shared with ICE” — U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Most of the U.S. funding comes from the Mérida Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. and Mexico, established in 2008. The initiative has four “pillars,” one of which is the creation of a “21st-Century Border.”

When reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson said, “We continue to work with Mexico and Central America to address the underlying economic, security, and governance conditions that drive illegal immigration to the United States.”

TENOSIQUE, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 15:  A Central American watches as a freight train arrives on September 15, 2014 in Tenosique, Mexico. Many migrants have perished riding atop "La Bestia" or The Beast freight train on their journey to the U.S. border.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A Central American watches as a freight train arrives on Sept. 15, 2014, in Tenosique, Mexico.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. funding for Mexico’s migration enforcement goes toward surveillance and inspection technology, canine teams, training, and infrastructure. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, U.S.-trained migration agents have worked with the Mexican military and police for enforcement purposes. The report details how U.S. support for the Southern Border Plan went toward building three security cordons, which stretch for more than 100 miles along Mexico’s southern border, and 12 advanced naval bases, in rivers along its borders with Guatemala and Belize.

Although the Mexican military’s primary task is not to enforce border controls against migrants, the future of their involvement was recently thrown into a state of uncertainty. Last December, Mexico passed the so-called Internal Security Law, providing sweeping powers to armed forces and cementing their role in internal policing. The law allows the military to act against any “internal security threat” — or any “risk” that may turn into a “threat.” The vagueness of the statute could very well open the door to expand the military’s role in migration enforcement.

According to official Mexican government statistics, the National Institute of Migration, or INM by its Spanish-language acronym, deported a total of 80,353 people in 2017. A large number of those were deported from Chiapas and Tabasco — two of the three states that share a border with Guatemala. Mexican documents show that there were approximately 16,278 people deported from Mexico in January and February of 2018 alone, nearly all of them from Central America.

Human rights groups have criticized Mexican authorities for alleged abuse against migrants.

Human rights groups have criticized Mexican authorities for alleged abuse against migrants. In 2017, the country’s National Human Rights Commission documented 521 complaints against the INM for rights abuses.

But U.S. authorities also have a presence in Mexico. According to a 2016 report by Reuters, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have been stationed in Tapachula, a town on the Mexico-Guatemala border, for training and investigative purposes.

Many of the migrant caravan’s participants are seeking asylum from their countries of origin, which are plagued with violence. Images and videos show hundreds of women and children taking part in the caravan. Horror stories of extortion, kidnapping, abuse, and disappearances are not uncommon for migrants traveling through Mexico. The 2010 San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants, mostly from Central and South America, carried out by the Zetas — an organized crime group created by former Mexican authorities — is an example used to highlight the conditions migrants may face on their journey.

“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” said Isacson, the WOLA analyst, referring to the dangerous conditions migrants face — both at the hands of criminals and officials. “And nothing is ever done, really, very little is ever done, to investigate it.”

The purpose of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan is to accompany the migrants as they travel through Mexico. There is safety in numbers and security as a collective unit. According to Alex Mensing, a project coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the organized group of migrants have various committees to help during the journey, including some that pertain to media, first aid, cooking, and safety.

The caravan also has a strong political character, with a program demanding an end to violence at the hands of Central American, Mexican, and U.S. governments, as well as an end to violence against women and the LGBT community.

“When people in the caravan come together, they come out of the shadows and they stand up for their rights, and they speak out against the kind of abuses that many of them have experienced,” Mensing told The Intercept.

Not every member of the caravan will travel to the U.S. Some will stay in Mexico to request asylum there. Requests for asylum in Mexico have been piling up. According to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, in 2016, there were a total of 8,796 refugees that requested asylum from the Mexican government. The number rose to 14,596 in 2017.

Those who do arrive at the U.S. border could face daunting odds. The Intercept reported last year that Customs and Border Protection were systematically turning away those who were seeking asylum at a U.S. point of entry, an alleged violation of the federal U.S. Code. A class-action lawsuit is currently pending.

Many of the migrants traveling with the caravan hail from situations where the U.S. is deeply involved with security forces known for brutal crackdowns.

Many of the migrants traveling with the caravan hail from situations where the U.S. is also deeply involved with security forces that are known for their brutal crackdowns. The caravan, as BuzzFeed reported, is primarily made up of people from Honduras, where reverberations from last fall’s political crisis are still being felt. Conservative Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, a U.S. ally, remains in power despite questions about the validity of the election process.

Mass mobilizations erupted in Honduras in response to the election. As The Intercept reported, the wave of repression by the state to suppress post-election protests has led to 35 people being killed by security forces, many of which have been trained and funded by the U.S. government. The slogans of those who opposed Hernández’s election have become a rallying cry among members of the caravan. For many of them, the 2017 political crisis was the final straw that forced them to flee their country after decades of corruption, instability, and abuse.

Top photo: Immigration officials remove Central American migrants from a northbound freight train during an early morning raid by federal police in San Ramon, Mexico, on Aug. 29, 2014.

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