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What Will Mexico’s Incoming Sheinbaum Administration Mean for Migrants?

The US-Mexico border remains a hot-button issue through both countries’ political transitions.

Words: Ann Louise Deslandes
Pictures: Alejandro Cartagena
Date:

Armando Ortiz* left Venezuela four years ago when fellow supporters of the opposition political party in his neighborhood started receiving death threats. He didn’t want to be next.

Ortiz left his wife and daughter at home to seek safety and stability in Colombia, then in Mexico, where he is now applying for refugee status.

He crossed the notorious Darién Gap to arrive in Mexico late last year, then he found himself stuck in the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, awaiting permission from authorities to continue moving through the country. He was among thousands who had requested asylum — at least 390,000 between 2021 and 2023 according to data recorded by the Mexican refugee authority — from an estimated 102 low- and middle-income countries. 

Ortiz had been hoping to get to the United States, but getting on the road out of southern Mexico turned out to be the most difficult step yet on the long journey out of Venezuela. “They turn us back wherever possible,” he said, referring to Mexican immigration officials, who work in concert with organized criminal groups to extort and deter migrants traveling out of Tapachula.

Under outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, Mexico has rolled out a highly militarized immigration enforcement strategy as part of ongoing agreements with the US to contain and deter the high numbers of migrants who enter Mexico and attempt to travel across the country to cross into the US as asylum seekers or undocumented workers. 

Earlier this month, Claudia Sheinbaum, a prodigy of AMLO, was elected president of Mexico — she takes office in October. Sheinbaum is known within Mexico for her loyalty to outgoing president AMLO and the policy agenda of Morena, the party he founded, with her election campaign emphasizing that she would “[build] the second floor” of Morena’s “transformation” of Mexico. Generally speaking, Sheinbaum has confirmed she will continue AMLO’s approach to migration and militarization, reiterating Mexico’s commitment to the Bicentennial Framework, a binational agreement to reduce human trafficking and smuggling and cross-border organized crime. She also affirmed her government will continue to pursue economic development in southern Mexico and Central America in the hope of addressing root causes of migration. 

Militarized Immigration Enforcement

As multiple Mexican and international human rights authorities have reported, the militarized strategy has caused or contributed to countless human rights abuses of migrants. On the migrant trail from the Mexico/Guatemala border to the Mexico/US border, Mexican immigration officials work with the armed forces and criminal groups to extort and rob migrants and are also implicated in kidnappings, torture and murders.

The deaths of 40 migrants in a fire in an immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side of the border in 2023 became emblematic of Mexico´s cooperation on US border policy under AMLO.

“This presidential term has been characterized by a migration policy of containment,” and “migration has been militarized,” says Miriam González, spokesperson for the Mexican Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI or Institute for Migrant Women). In the already highly dangerous context of migration through Mexico, the risks to women migrants are particular and include kidnapping, rape, and trafficking, and significant barriers in reporting these crimes, according to a 2021 report by IMUMI in conjunction with the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The US claims that the joint hardline approach with Mexico has reduced the numbers of migrants who arrive to the US border and put criminal smuggling networks out of business. The Biden administration stopped considering most asylum requests on June 5, with President Biden saying it was necessary to “gain control of the border” in the absence of cooperation from Republicans on other proposed solutions. The result for Mexico has so far been an increase in overcrowding of migrant shelters on its side of the border. AMLO said he will be seeking an agreement with the US government so that migrants will not be returned to Mexico.

Going forward, “Dr Sheinbaum has not articulated a clear migration enforcement agenda” said Dr. Gabriella Sanchez, a research fellow on migration at Georgetown University with expertise on trafficking and smuggling.  “This leads those of us who are researchers and people who respond to some of the humanitarian challenges here at the border” to suspect that the president-elect “is going to continue with the same logic that prevailed during the years of López Obrador,” particularly as “migration control is so connected to financial support from the United States.”

The president-elect has assured business leaders that any reform of the judiciary will prioritize keeping investments safe. One of Sheinbaum’s first media appearances after her election on June 2 was a primer on nearshoring, the foreign investment practice that promises to bring economic growth to the country by having US and European corporations move their manufacturing operations from China and South East Asia to Mexico.

Mexico: “The Vertical Wall”

Having made it to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Ortiz said he had decided to “stay here and see if the Mexican government will accept my asylum application.” The Venezuelan hopes that, with this recognition, he will be able to access better jobs in Mexico, and, eventually, still make it one day to the United States, where he expects to have “more freedom.”

“I always thought the US wanted to keep Mexicans out — now it’s Mexico keeping the rest of us out.”

Armando Ortiz

Ortiz is one of many who have arrived to Mexico seeking passage to the United States and have instead found staying on the southern side of the border to be the only viable choice. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Mexico estimates that there have been more than 1,060 asylum requests from Venezuelans in the first five months of this year, following 5,517 in all of 2023, which saw a record 140,982 asylum applications in Mexico — the majority from Haiti, Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador and Venezuela overall. 

Many obtain asylum as a precondition of being approved at the US border — Mexican authorities are enforcing a US requirement that migrants intercepted in Mexico have an appointment with US border officials that must be made through the smartphone app CBPOne.

But many are also, like Ortiz, staying where they are for now. Ortiz tried to advance north from Tapachula twice before, joining migrant caravans that were turned back by Mexican immigration and military personnel.  Now, having reached Tuxtla Gutierrez and nursing a leg injury, he says he is admitting defeat. “I thought I could try and get on the train” he said, referring to the freight train route that passes through the length of Mexico to the US border, nicknamed “La Bestia” for the danger it causes to migrants who attempt to ride it. “But now with my bad leg, I think I would be truly risking my life.”

Life in Mexico has considerable challenges for the migrants who decide to settle here. Ortiz says he has been able to get some financial and job-searching support from a local municipality, for which he says he counts himself lucky. More than 90% of Haitian migrants “don’t have a steady income to cover their basic needs, like housing,” according to an Al-Jazeera report in which the non-government organization Haitian Bridge Alliance recounts the severe impacts of racial discrimination on the experience of migrants in Mexico.

Joint Commitments To Curb Smuggling Unlikely To Protect Migrants

Where AMLO has been known within the US administration for a “statist approach,” incorporating “a very active role for the public sector in the economy” as former White House advisor Dan Restrepo told Crooked Media recently, Sheinbaum “believes more in a competition stance” between the public and private sectors. She has also, notes Restrepo, “demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with the United States on security in ways that Lopez Obrador, her political mentor, wasn’t.”

Dr. Gabriella Sanchez said that the continuation of the same “efforts to counter transnational criminal organizations or smuggling networks have hardly ever led to the protection of migrants.”

Ortiz said, “we [migrants in Mexico] are victims of politics and greed.”

“I always thought the US wanted to keep Mexicans out — now it’s Mexico keeping the rest of us out.”

*Name changed at the request of the interviewee to protect their safety.

Ann Louise Deslandes

Ann Louise Deslandes is an independent journalist, writer and research consultant in southern Mexico. You can follow Ann’s work by subscribing to The Troubled Region, her newsletter of/on foreign correspondence.

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