What the US-Mexico Migration Dispute Is Really About

Both countries want the same outcome, even if publicly it doesn’t appear that way.


The U.S. and Mexico are engaged in yet another diplomatic spat, this time over migration. The U.S. has threatened to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico unless Mexico can stem the flow of migrants across the U.S. southern border. What exactly Mexico needs to do to prevent the U.S. from following through on the threat isn’t clear, but President Donald Trump said 5 percent tariffs would be imposed on Mexican imports on Monday. The move has been met with criticism on both sides of the border. In the U.S., some businesses and lawmakers say it will hurt the U.S. economy and others have even questioned its legality. Mexico, meanwhile, has said it will respond in kind and maintains that the best way to solve the crisis is by investing in development of the Central American countries from which many migrants are fleeing.

The dispute is part of a much bigger issue. Washington is trying to keep its southern neighbor in check, and it’s trying to remind Mexico, which has been pursuing a more independent foreign policy of late, that the U.S. is the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. The revival of the Monroe Doctrine is one of the most important processes underway in North America right now, but it’s challenged by the fact that the U.S. and Mexico have different visions for Central America. Both countries want to play a leadership role there and thus have competing interests in the long term. In the short term, however, the Trump and Lopez Obrador administrations both want to control the influx of Central American migrants, but they also see an opportunity to score political points by playing up the dispute between their two countries. In reality, they’re actually working more closely than it may seem to try to address the problem.

Mexico’s Constraints

The U.S. has demanded that Mexico increase security along its border with Guatemala, from which migrants make their way north, but Mexico has limited ability to do so because of five main constraints.

The first has to do with the terrain. The 540-mile border crosses three rivers and passes through hills and jungle, including areas of dense vegetation. It lacks a strong state presence, dense population centers and infrastructure. The border, therefore, has always been somewhat porous. In February, Mexican Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero identified 370 illegal crossing points along the Guatemala border. But Mexican officials have so far resisted increasing security there because the flow of people and goods between the two countries is critical to local economies in both countries. In fact, the states along the Guatemala border are among the poorest in Mexico.

Second, Mexican institutions are ill-equipped to handle the current migration challenge. The government’s 2019 budget cut spending across the board and immigration-related institutions were no exception; Mexico’s Refugee Commission, for example, saw its budget slashed by 20 percent. Southern states, in particular, have insufficient shelters and facilities to host all of the migrants coming into Mexico, forcing the National Immigration Institute to allow asylum seekers and others to leave the shelters as they wait for their visas to be processed, which could take weeks or months because of the backlog. From December 2018 to May 2019, immigration officials received 24,541 asylum applications, which amounts to 82 percent of the total asylum applications received for all of 2018.

Third, militarization of the border isn’t an attractive option for Mexico. There’s a shortage of reliable law enforcement, and corruption among security officials is still a major issue. Furthermore, the biggest security threats to the country aren’t at the Guatemala border; organized crime, homicides and violence are reaching record levels nationwide, and Mexico needs to distribute its resources accordingly. In addition, the southern state of Chiapas has a complicated history with Mexico’s central government, and militarizing this area could provoke a backlash.

Another option would be to ask other countries for law enforcement and military help, but this too is extremely controversial in Mexico. The most obvious candidate to provide security assistance would be the United States, but given their history, Mexico is very cautious about cooperating with the U.S. on security matters. It will accept aid, training, administrative help and some intelligence sharing, but it would not tolerate the presence of American forces in Mexico or U.S. control over Mexican forces. Mexico sees these limits as necessary to protect its autonomy and territorial integrity.

Finally, there are formidable criminal interests that do not want to see the Guatemala border closed, and Mexico is in no position to take them on. Many smugglers bringing cocaine from Colombia and Central America pass through the Yucatan and Guatemala to reach Mexico. This isn’t the only route used for drug trafficking, but the southern border is an important transit point for illegal substances, which in turn helps fuel corruption among local security officials. And as the migration crisis has intensified, human trafficking has also become a growing issue as organized crime groups profit from smuggling migrants across the border.

Despite these constraints, there are measures Mexico can take to reduce the flow of migrants to the United States. And it has, in fact, already demonstrated that such measures can be effective. In 2014, the U.S. experienced an influx of migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors, over the Mexican border. Then-President Barack Obama asked his Mexican counterpart to boost security at the Guatemalan border. Mexico responded by introducing the Southern Border Plan, which involved joint efforts by immigration authorities, federal police, the military and other government agencies to reduce migration. The plan focused on migrants who had already made their way into Mexico. From January 2014 to May 2015, the number of raids targeting migrants in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco more than doubled from 796 to 1,785 per month and the number of migrants apprehended also doubled from 25,314 to 53,891. The plan succeeded in increasing the number of deportations, though there was some public opposition to the use of force and alleged human rights violations that occurred in the process.

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The Southern Border Plan also used a containment strategy to try to keep the migrants from moving north. Current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador adopted a similar strategy in February. His version calls for tighter security in the south, particularly around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to stop the northern flow of migrants through Mexico by imposing stronger customs controls and highway checkpoints as well as screening passengers on major public transportation routes, targeting cargo trains known for smuggling, and even raiding local hotels believed to be housing migrants. According to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, between December 2018 and May 2019, Mexico deported over 80,500 migrants, most of whom were from Central American countries. Over this period, Mexico also took in 8,835 migrants who were waiting for their U.S. asylum claims to be processed and currently has 18,778 U.S. asylum claimants. It also detained 400 people for participating in human smuggling. Mexico, therefore, can make the case that it has indeed tried to stem migration to the U.S. border and produced some results.

Washington’s Efforts

The U.S. has also taken steps to stem the flow of Central American migrants. Days before the U.S. threatened tariffs on Mexico, the U.S. signed security cooperation agreements with the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). The U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified Guatemala as the main chokepoint for Central American migration, and the department’s acting director noted that if the U.S. can help improve security along Guatemala’s border with El Salvador and Honduras, it would disrupt the flow of people into Mexico. DHS is also reportedly helping boost security closer to the Guatemala-Mexico border, in places like Huehuetenango.

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Details of the agreement have not yet been made public, but we do know that the U.S. has committed to providing better training and support for local security forces and information sharing. The agreement also addresses human trafficking and recognizes the link between people smuggling and organized crime in the region. It doesn’t call for any additional financial support for Guatemala nor does it involve U.S. military assistance, despite rumors that it did, which were quickly dispelled. Joint operations are underway, including a raid last month that reportedly led to the arrest of nine leaders of a smuggling ring.

U.S. efforts, if successful, will not only serve U.S. interests but also help alleviate pressure on Mexican authorities at the Guatemala border, which in turn will help free up resources so Mexico can address the migration problem in other regions of the country. As long as the U.S. stops short of deploying troops to Guatemala, which the U.S. is unlikely to do anyway given that its resources are overstretched as it is, Mexico will welcome U.S. efforts to block migration from Guatemala, especially considering that such efforts actually complement the work Mexico is also doing to address the problem.

The Real Issue

Why, then, are the U.S. and Mexico embroiled in a dispute over migration when both countries are trying to stop it? It comes down to a combination of miscalculations by both Mexico and the United States and the political climate in each country.

Early on, Mexico believed it could accept migrants into Mexico and prevent them from wanting to reach the U.S. When the first migrant caravans arrived in late 2018, Mexico welcomed them with open arms. The government gave temporary legal status to newcomers, supported shelters that housed new migrants and eventually issued humanitarian visas, which lasted one year and granted migrants the right to reside, work and attend school in Mexico. The plan was to resettle the migrants and have them help build massive infrastructure projects in the south. But implementation proved tricky, and some migrants started moving north for higher-wage jobs while others never intended to settle in Mexico anyway and headed to the U.S. (Mexico has since issued visas that restrict movement and are valid only in southern states.)

The U.S., meanwhile, failed to see how its crackdown on migration would be perceived in Central America. When people there saw that the U.S. was taking a harder stance and threatening to close the border, they felt a sense of urgency and headed to the U.S. before it was too late. Washington also didn’t take into account that false information was being spread on social media that encouraged people to make the trek to the United States. (People suggested, for example, that anyone who reached the U.S. border with a child was guaranteed entry to the United States.) This further exacerbated the problem and created a flood of migrants moving north at a time when Mexico’s efforts to contain the migrants wasn’t producing the results it wanted. Since then, Mexico has adopted new measures to increase control of newcomers, and the U.S. has focused its public statements more on Mexico than on Central American migrants.

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But the rhetoric from the two administrations has continued because both have something to gain from escalating the dispute, at least in public. The Trump administration’s move to raise tariffs on Mexico is mainly directed at a domestic audience eager to see the U.S. get tough on Mexico. November 2020 may seem far off, but election season has already started, and the Trump administration will be making its case for re-election throughout the year. Trump promised to build a border wall but has largely been unable to do so thus far. So, he has been trying to drum up support from his base by vilifying Mexico instead.

Lopez Obrador is also looking for a political boost, now that his initial support for the migrants is an increasingly unpopular stance. As early as November and December 2018, there were signs that his approach could be unpopular, as protests erupted against migrants who were occupying public spaces and the deteriorating security situation. And as their numbers increased, so too did the number of small towns, particularly in the south, that closed themselves off to migrants. A survey conducted in April found that 51.8 percent of Mexicans believe Lopez Obrador should block migrants from entering the U.S., given Trump’s threat to close the border, and 58.2 percent believe that migrants have harmed their communities. When asked how the Mexican government should address illegal immigration, 62.5 percent said Mexico should not allow migrants to stay in the country as refugees, and 41 percent said they supported their immediate expulsion. The Mexican president needed to take action to curb immigration and thus has adopted a tougher approach. And his strategy may have worked: His approval rating increased from 61.6 percent in late May to 63.7 in early June.

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Despite the war of words, it’s unlikely that the spat will escalate into a full-blown trade war. In fact, the Mexican administration and the Senate have continued to express their intentions to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The two countries were forced to reach the deal in the first place because their economies are highly intertwined, and that hasn’t changed.

The U.S. and Mexico understand not only each other’s constraints but also the public sentiment both are governments facing. Tariffs could prove costly, especially at a time when there are signs that the two sides are, to a degree, working together to try to solve the migration problem. The heated rhetoric really stems from political considerations, but in the short term, the two sides will be able to find a mutually acceptable solution to this issue since both have an interest in doing so. The underlying issues remain, but they will be left for another day.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.