Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today.

Mexico Can Do Better For Migrants

Thirty years ago, Mexico provided shelter for 40,000 Central American migrants fleeing US-sponsored terror. Today it’s leaving the few thousand at its border in squalor. Another way is possible.

Migrants rest inside a temporary migrant shelter next to the US-Mexico border on November 17, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. John Moore / Getty

Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) promised in his inauguration speech to bring to bring his country into a new era, ending corruption, bringing about a new prosperity, and improving the lives of all. Both before and after his inauguration he has spoken out on the need for a form of development in Central America that would reduce migration caused by unemployment and poverty. He has proposed a “Marshall Plan” for Central America, promising that Mexico would put $30 billion into an economic development program. While all of this may be well and good for the future, in the meantime it appears that both the United States and Mexico are engaged in the studied neglect of immigrants who have arrived at the border seeking asylum from the violence of their homelands.

Today about three thousand migrants seeking asylum in the United States are at the border in Tijuana, Mexico in temporary shelters without adequate bathroom facilities, without readily available drinking water, and in conditions that have led to widespread illness among those who arrived in the largest migrant caravans during the last month. Many of the migrants are children, and though the Mexican government, the Catholic Church, and several NGOs have attempted to provide assistance, they have been hard-pressed to meet the needs of the migrants.

US immigration authorities have been accepting about forty asylum applications a day, a policy clearly intended to frustrate the migrants and drive them back home. Tijuana’s mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum, a conservative politician who promises to make Mexico great again, has called the migrants an invading horde who are not welcome in his city. His rhetoric has helped to mobilize xenophobic demonstrations by Mexicans against the Central American migrants. The Tijuana mayor has allowed conditions to deteriorate so that the migrants will accept the federal government’s offer to put them on buses and send them back home, an offer that thousands have already accepted.

Mexico Could Do More

President López Obrador could do much more. In the 1980s, Mexico housed and supported some 40,000 Central American immigrants for several years while civil war raged in their homeland. The US-backed right-wing government of Guatemala fought against the democratic opposition’s armed guerrilla movement by killing 250,000 indigenous people. Faced with such fierce and lethal repression, thousands of Guatemalans crossed the border into Mexico. The Mexican government responded by permitting the refugees to enter the country and helping them establish camps in Mexico near the Guatemalan border. Much like the situation today, 70 percent of those living in the camps were women, children, and the elderly.

These were not simply refugee camps, they were “settlements by village of origin [that] ensured that the unit of traditional authority within a community was preserved; thus the refugees were given a basis for self-government.” A later report from the Organization of American States legal department explained that, at least in theory,

These directives were very effective in avoiding bureaucratization of the operations of medical, food and educational assistance. The meagre budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugees would not have allowed them to have a presence in each of the settlements. A system of self-regulation of food and assistance was allowed, reposing on the traditional organization of the Indian communities, according to which the authority of the elders is supreme.

In 1981, as these refugee communities in Mexico were emerging, the Mexican government also signed an agreement with the UN allowing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to play a role in the oversight of the camps. As one might expect, there were many conflicts between the refugees themselves, the Mexican Commission for Refugees (COMAR), and UNHCR, and the refugees sometimes traveled to Mexico City to protest, where they were joined by Mexican human rights activists.

As a reporter for the Mexico City News, I both witnessed the protests in Mexico City and visited those camps, bringing along two doctor friends to look at the conditions. While the conditions were modest, they were humane, with adequate latrines, plenty of water, and sufficient food. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the authoritarian party which ruled Mexico at that time, exerted strong administrative and political control over the theoretically autonomous camps. The settlements also became a refuge for leftist activists fleeing the Guatemalan indigenous holocaust and targeted by Guatemalan military or death squads that invaded the camps in Mexico in violation of international law. Though far from ideal, the camps offered migrants a modicum of safety and shelter, and provided for their basic needs. The political situation that Mexico faced with a civil war on its border was much worse than what it faces today, with desperate migrants simply seeking to pass through its country in search of asylum.

López Obrador might follow the example of earlier governments that assisted migrants, by providing them with relatively safe and healthy conditions. AMLO could mobilize the Mexican Army and Navy to set up refugee camps sufficient for as many as 10,000 migrants. Mexico has a population of about 130 million people, while there are an estimated 1.8 million people in the Tijuana metropolitan area, and assisting 10,000 people should not be a burden to a nation as large and comparatively wealthy as Mexico. The Mexican Army, of course, does not have a good reputation after twelve years of the drug war, in which it repeatedly violated human rights in the most serious way, including its alleged responsibility for the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College kidnappings and killings. And its human rights violations have continued. But AMLO has promised to reform Mexico’s government, including its armed forces, and here is an opportunity to do so. Take the guns from the soldiers and send them to construct safe and health refugee settlements in Tijuana or wherever they are needed.

Mexican, Central American, and US human rights activists should demand that the Mexican federal government take responsibility to provide decent facilities for the migrants waiting at the border to petition the US government for asylum, even as we continue to protest the US government’s violation of our national laws and international agreements in its refusal to let the asylum seeks enter to present their petitions.