Who could influence the outcome of the US elections? The Mexican president

By | March 26, 2024

MEXICO CITY — Migrants poured across the U.S. southern border in record numbers, international railroad bridges were abruptly closed and official ports of entry closed.

Desperate for help in December, President Joe Biden called President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who told him to quickly send a delegation to the Mexican capital, several U.S. officials said.

The White House hastened to do so. Shortly thereafter, Mexico stepped up enforcement. The number of illegal border crossings into the United States fell sharply in January.

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As immigration comes to the fore in the US presidential campaign, Mexico has become a major player on an issue that could influence the election, and the White House has worked hard to maintain López Obrador’s cooperation.

The government publicly says its diplomacy has been a success.

But behind closed doors, some senior Biden officials have come to view López Obrador as an unpredictable partner, who he says is not doing enough to consistently police his own southern border or police routes used by smugglers to bring millions of migrants into the United States to take. According to several U.S. and Mexican officials. None of them wanted to speak officially about delicate diplomatic relations.

“We’re not getting the cooperation we should be getting,” said John Feeley, former deputy chief of mission in Mexico from 2009 to 2012. Feeley said the two countries have increased joint patrols and surveys to secure the border during the Obama administration.

“I know what it looks like when there is true collaboration,” Feeley said, “as opposed to what we have now, which is being touted as great collaboration, but I think it’s bupkis.”

While I’m at the office, President Donald Trump used the threat of tariffs to force López Obrador to carry out his crackdown on migration.

Biden needs Mexico just as much but has taken a different approach, focusing instead on avoiding conflict with the powerful and sometimes unstable Mexican leader in the hope that this would preserve his cooperation.

“AMLO has correctly assessed his influence and has recognized that we are using ours,” said Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s former top adviser in Latin America, using López Obrador’s nickname.

Liz Sherwood-Randall, the US homeland security adviser, said the White House is “working at the highest levels with the government of Mexico,” adding: “President Lopez Obrador has been a critical partner for President Biden.”

Mexico has added hundreds of immigration checkpoints and increased enforcement personnel tenfold since 2022, according to U.S. State Department figures. Mexico is also detaining more migrants than at any time in recent history.

Yet the numbers reaching the southern border have remained stubbornly high. There were more than two million illegal border crossings in each of the past two fiscal years, twice as many as in 2019, the busiest year for apprehensions under Trump.

The lull early this year was still one of the highest Januarys ever for illegal crossings, according to U.S. federal data. Fears increased again in February.

In Mexico, officials say they have reached the limits of what they can achieve, despite an extraordinary influx that has also overwhelmed their country.

López Obrador has urged the White House to provide more development aid to Latin American countries to address the problems that are causing migrants to leave in the first place.

“We want the root causes to be addressed, to be looked at seriously,” he told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday. Asked whether he would continue to secure the border even if the United States did not do what he asked, López Obrador said: “Yes, because our relationship is very important.”

Migration has increased due to factors beyond any government’s control: persistent poverty, raging violence, the effects of climate change and the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving people desperate for any chance of survival.

Yet Mexican officials also blame U.S. policies, saying migrants have an incentive to come to the United States because the asylum system is so backlogged that migrants have a good chance of staying in the country for years until their cases are resolved.

“This is entirely the responsibility of the United States, not ours,” Enrique Lucero, head of the Migrant Affairs Office in Tijuana, a local government agency, said in an interview, referring to the migrant crisis.

The US government “must change their entire immigration and asylum system, and the legal framework,” he said, “or we will end up doing the dirty work.”

In recent months, authorities in Tijuana have raided hotels and safe houses, increased security at official border crossings and installed new checkpoints along a once-deserted section of the border near the city where migrants walked through a hole in the wall.

Nothing worked for long.

The authorities’ crackdown has only put migrants in greater danger, aid groups say, leading smugglers to take people on riskier routes across the vast desert, where they are often found lost and dehydrated.

One night in February, a smuggler dropped off a group of 30 people miles from the border, saying they would soon find a hole in the wall. In the darkness, the group became lost and walked for hours until they finally reached California and reached a makeshift camp where migrants often squeeze into portable bathrooms to take shelter.

Two-year-old Denver Gonzalez couldn’t stop sobbing.

“I’m cold, I want to sleep,” the boy shouted repeatedly as his father wrapped his tiny body in blankets donated by a local volunteer.

“You put pressure on them one moment, and they go to another place,” said David Pérez Tejada, head of the Baja California office of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, referring to the smugglers. “It’s all a cat-and-mouse game and it’s extremely difficult to keep it under control.”

The White House has pushed the Mexican government to increase deportations, implement visa restrictions for more countries to hamper entry into Mexico and strengthen security forces at the southern border.

Since 2022, the Mexican government has added hundreds of immigration checkpoints, beefed up security along train routes used by migrants to travel north and increased enforcement staff tenfold, according to U.S. State Department figures. Mexico is also detaining more migrants than at any time in recent history.

Yet truckloads of migrants continue to move through the country, in part because smugglers often pay for the checkpoints, U.S. officials say.

The Biden administration wants Mexico to increase deportations. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said last week it had reached an agreement with Venezuela to deport migrants and help them find work.

But repatriation flights are expensive, and Mexico has legal barriers to deporting people en masse. Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that migrants could only be held for 36 hours.

Many countries require at least 72 hours’ notice before accepting flights with their citizens, said a senior Mexican official who was not authorized to speak publicly. This means that the government often has to release migrants before it can negotiate their return. Deportations from Mexico fell by more than half last year, Mexican government data show.

The White House has also pressured Mexico to do more of what some officials call “decompression,” moving people from the border to somewhere deep in the country.

“People are being detained by Mexican authorities and sent to random towns in the south,” said Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado, or To the Other Side, a humanitarian group. “Forcing them to move back north, pay bribes to the authorities and take all those risks again is inhumane.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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