MEXICO CITY—Three years after President Trump vowed to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico to stop illegal immigrants, a much more effective obstacle has emerged: Mexican President
Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Earlier this week, Mexico deployed hundreds of troops from its new National Guard to halt a caravan of some 2,000 Central American migrants who crossed a shallow river on Guatemala’s border with Mexico seeking to make their way to the U.S. Mexican television broadcast video of the guardsmen using plastic shields and tear gas to break up the migrant caravan.
On Thursday, a phalanx of guardsmen disbanded a group of some 800 migrants who had entered Mexico undetected and were advancing north. Video images posted on Twitter showed the federal agents stomping in lockstep toward the migrants. They pushed back the migrants with their plastic shields and encircled them using pepper spray amid shoving and yelling.
Most of the migrants in the caravan have been arrested and sent to crowded detention facilities, from where most of them will be deported to their home countries, a Mexican immigration official said.
The televised images brought home to Mexicans what a growing number of them see as an uncomfortable truth about Mr. López Obrador, who last month completed his first year in office. The charismatic, silver-haired leftist nationalist, once a passionate critic of Mr. Trump, has now become the main enforcer of his anti-immigration policies.
Most Mexicans agree that the country’s immigration laws must be enforced. But the contrast between Mr. López Obrador’s once-welcoming rhetoric and the harshness of his response in recent months has prompted a barrage of criticism, including some from members of the president’s party.
“Trump has built his wall, and Mexico is paying for it,” former Foreign Minister
said. “It’s a human wall, and it’s in Mexico: It’s the National Guard, which is much more effective and cheaper than a wall.”
Mr. López Obrador’s policy has won plaudits from U.S. officials. “I commend the Government of Mexico for upholding their commitment to increased security and law enforcement at their southern border,” said acting Homeland Security Secretary
in a tweet Wednesday.
Mexican officials say Mr. López Obrador feels he has no choice. Last year, Mr. Trump threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexico’s exports to the U.S. unless the country did more to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. Such a move would have devastated the Mexican economy, which relies heavily on manufactured exports to the U.S.
After an emergency meeting in June with U.S. officials in Washington, Mexico quickly complied with U.S. demands. Since then, Mexico has dispatched some 25,000 National Guard troops to detain migrants on the Guatemala border as well as its border with the U.S. That is about a third of the force Mr. López Obrador originally formed to combat violent drug traffickers who control swaths of Mexico’s territory.
As a result of the clampdown, Mexico’s detentions of Central American migrants was 35% higher last year through November compared with the same period of the previous year. Conversely, the number of migrants reaching the U.S. plummeted, U.S. officials say. Detentions of migrants on the U.S. southwest border fell from 130,000 in May—the highest monthly number in 13 years—to 32,800 in December.
Mexico has also agreed to other U.S. demands. It has already accepted allowing nearly 60,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central American countries, to await their U.S. court hearings in dangerous Mexican border cities.
And under agreements reached last year with Guatemala and Honduras, the U.S. may soon begin deporting Mexican asylum seekers from U.S. detention centers to those countries, which would likely prove to be a bitter pill for Mexico. “This will make things uncomfortable for the Mexican government,” says
the president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
It has been quite a turnaround for Mr. López Obrador. Just three years ago, he branded Mr. Trump’s immigration policies as “xenophobic and neofascist.” He wrote a book, titled “Listen, Trump,” defending Mexican migrants in the U.S., and he denounced the American president before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington for violating human rights.
At the time, when Mr. López Obrador was the leading candidate for Mexico’s presidency, he said Mr. Trump’s “policy of hate” violated migrants’ human rights. He blasted then Mexican President
Enrique Peña Nieto
for being “subordinate, submissive [and] silent in the face of
During Mr. López Obrador first two months in office, he offered more than 13,000 humanitarian visas to migrants. News of that generosity, spread by WhatsApp, led to a surge of Central Americans who overwhelmed facilities on the U.S. border in the spring of 2019. “My government is not in favor of the use of force to contain migration,” Mr. López Obrador said in March during a speech celebrating his first 100 days in office.
Now, Mr. López Obrador touts his “respectful” relationship with Mr. Trump, whom he never criticizes. At a recent press conference, Foreign Minister
said the National Guard is respecting human rights and the country’s sovereignty by guaranteeing a “secure, orderly and regular” migration flow.
Some of Mr. López Obrador’s supporters don’t agree.
“The savage aggression perpetrated by the National Guard against Honduran refugees and the apprehension of more than 400 is a violation” of the constitution,
Porfirio Muñoz Ledo,
a veteran legislator and prominent member of Mr. López Obrador’s Morena party, wrote on Twitter this week.
Other members of Morena voted to silence Mr. Muñoz Ledo when he tried to speak in defense of the migrants at a congressional hearing this week. At the same hearing, the head of Mexico’s human-rights commission, a staunch Morena member, said nothing on the issue.
“López Obrador sold us out to Trump,” said
a migrant activist, giving voice to an opinion widely shared among Mr. López Obrador’s leftist supporters. “There is no respect for Mexico and for migrants. The U.S. tramples our dignity.”
Despite that outcry, Mr. López Obrador is unlikely to pay a high political price. Support for migrants has fallen sharply in Mexico after more than six caravans crossed the country in the last two years, often straining the capacities of municipalities and states en route.
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According to a recent poll, 55% of Mexicans believe Central American migrants should be deported to their home countries, and only 7% believe they should be offered residency in Mexico. However, 81% of Mexicans believe Mexico has been ill-treated by Mr. Trump.
Officials say the Mexican president knows he can’t afford to bring down Mr. Trump’s wrath, which would upend the Mexican leader’s broader agenda.
Mr. López Obrador, who hasn’t traveled outside Mexico since assuming power, has little interest in foreign policy. He faces multiple challenges, struggling with a flat economy and spiraling violence as he strives to transform the country by doing away with corruption and lessening Mexico’s glaring inequality.
“Out of fear, López Obrador has not confronted Trump,” said
the coordinator of Agenda Migrante, a nonprofit migrant advocacy group in Mexico City. “It hasn’t had a political cost so far, but this won’t be forever.”
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