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Mexico's Mass Arrests of Central American Migrants Follow Years of U.S. Pressure

The story of Mexico's latest crackdown on U.S.-bound Central American migrants began long before Trump's presidency.
A Mexican riot policeman protects an immigrant father and child during a clash between police and the migrant caravan on the border between Mexico and Guatemala on October 19th, 2018, in Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala.

A Mexican riot policeman protects an immigrant father and child during a clash between police and the migrant caravan on the border between Mexico and Guatemala on October 19th, 2018, in Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala.

As President Donald Trump amps up his threats against Mexico in an effort to pressure the country to stop Central American asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the United States' border, the Mexican government has made some of the largest mass arrests of Central Americans in recent years. It has arrested hundreds of people who were trying to make it to the U.S.

On Monday, as a huge group of Central American migrants and U.S.-bound asylum seekers (largely mothers and children) sat to rest underneath a bridge in southern Mexico, a large force of Mexican authorities descended on the group. Photos from the day show children screaming as agents rounded up families and loaded them into vans and buses for arrest and likely deportation. By the end of the raid, Mexican authorities had arrested over 300 people—the largest mass arrest on one of the so-called "caravans" that have traveled through Mexico from Central America in recent years.

In a series of tweets, Trump said that one of the new caravans had been "reduced in size by Mexico," but still called on the Mexican government to do more. "Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military," he threatened.

Trump's tactic of pressuring Mexico to crack down on immigrants traveling to the U.S. continues an American policy that is almost a decade old. Starting under the Obama administration, the U.S. began pressuring Mexico to dramatically increase its own immigration enforcement apparatus.

Here's how the U.S. came to play this role in Mexico's immigration system.

'The Guatemalan Border With [Mexico] Is Now Our Southern Border'

In 2011, a high-ranking Obama staffer in the Department of Homeland Security—and former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection—gave a speech at a conference on border issues. The official, Alan Bersin, pointed out a trend that had begun at the beginning of the decade: Migration from Mexico into the U.S. had plummeted to historic lows. But the number of people traveling from Central America into Mexico had begun to grow significantly, as war-like levels of violence ravaged countries like El Salvador and Honduras. Surveying the change, Bersin said something that would come to describe the next eight years of U.S. immigration policy: "The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border," referencing Mexico's southernmost state's border with Guatemala.

The trend Bersin noticed has only grown: In recent years, the significant majority of people arriving on the U.S.'s southern border have been Central American, not Mexican. In 2014, the change in migration reached a crisis point in what has become known as the Child Migration Crisis, when a huge number of unaccompanied children fleeing gang violence and repression in Central America began arriving on the U.S.–Mexico border.

The situation on the border quickly became a humanitarian crisis, and put pressure on the Obama administration to act. Though then-President Barack Obama acknowledged that the children were fleeing desperate conditions in Central America, his administration's response was largely an attempt to stop the children from arriving at the border in the first place. While the Obama administration invested in efforts to decrease violence in Central America and launched an ad campaign in the region to discourage migration, its most successful effort to limit migration involved pressuring the Mexican government to launch a massive crackdown on northward migration.

Mexico's Virtual Wall: Programa Frontera Sur

In July of 2014, Mexico's then-President Enrique Peña Nieto announced his country's new "Programa Frontera Sur"—Southern Border Plan. The plan, which has since become the centerpiece of the enormous growth of Mexico's immigration enforcement machine, began by significantly increasing security at more than 12 important crossings along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala and Belize, and ramping up enforcement along popular migration routes. Mexico also began to deport Central Americans (and migrants of other nationalities), many of whom were trying to reach the U.S., at unprecedented rates.

The plan was largely supported by U.S funding. As Lauren Kaori Gurley wrote for The New Republic in 2018, between 2014 and 2018, the U.S spent nearly $200 million to sponsor a "deportation regime" in Mexico. Flush with new cash, Mexico deported more than 600,000 people in that time frame—almost twice the number of people caught crossing the U.S.'s southern border in 2017.

Human Rights Concerns

As Mexico's immigration enforcement machine has grown under U.S. pressure (and with American dollars), human rights advocates say that Mexican authorities have routinely committed abuses against migrants. Earlier this year, Kennji Kizuka, an attorney and senior researcher with the advocacy organization Human Rights First, told me that Mexican authorities are notorious for deporting Central Americans without due process, often returning them to places where their lives are in danger. In refugee law, this is known as refoulement, and non-refoulement (not returning refugees to the country from which they're fleeing) is considered a human right under international law.