Mexico’s deployment of thousands of military and National Guard troops as well as other enforcement officials to its southern border repeats a cycle that places people who migrate at risk of human rights violations. It is alarming that the Mexican government is sending in more troops to crack down on asylum seekers and migrants, even as Mexico’s refugee agency still lacks presence at the ports of entry along the Mexico-Guatemala border, limiting the ability of those fleeing violence to request and receive asylum or other international protections. This crackdown fails to contribute to any sustainable regional plan to address forced migration.
Although Mexico’s foreign ministry cited COVID-19 when announcing new border restrictions last Thursday, in a subsequent press release on Friday, the National Migration Institute (INM) claimed that the new border operation—launched that day in a large-scale, military-style event with troops in riot gear—is being implemented to “protect” Central American children. In its statement, the INM repeatedly portrayed migrant children as being “used by criminal networks as safe passage,” framing children and family members as if they were all pawns used by smugglers, even as large numbers of children and families are in fact fleeing well-known contexts of violence and persecution or otherwise migrating to survive.
The INM statement contains no reference to the possibility that any families might need asylum. Additionally, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is thus far glaringly absent from the list of institutions playing a role in the border operation. The institutions that are most visible instead include Mexico’s armed forces—whose core mission is to defend against enemies, not to carry out migration tasks—and the National Guard, which is composed mainly of military troops and has already been implicated in human rights abuses against migrants. In these circumstances, to claim that the border operation’s core objective is to protect Central American children strains credibility at best.
The renewed deployment of security forces is reminiscent of the crackdown in the summer of 2019, triggered by pressure from the Trump administration. On that occasion, WOLA documented on the ground how the deployment of the National Guard drove migrants to more remote areas where they were at greater risk of criminal attacks. In addition, this migration crackdown led to severe overcrowding in migration detention centers (whose already poor conditions lead asylum seekers to drop their claims in order to regain their freedom). Meanwhile, smugglers frequently adapted their routes and methods to continue operating despite the new enforcement presence.
In response to the crisis of refugees and migrants in the region, Mexico should demilitarize migration activities and reorient its approach to its southern border, recognizing that crackdowns exacerbate risks faced by an already vulnerable population. To protect children and families, Mexico should tailor government presence to respond to current migration patterns: needed at its ports of entry, for instance, are COMAR officials duly trained and specialized in attending to fleeing populations and detecting asylum needs, so that asylum seekers do not have to enter the country clandestinely to seek out a COMAR office in order to avoid detention.
Mexico’s renewed crackdown comes amid reports that the Biden administration is pressing the Mexican government to do more to stem migration north through its territory and to accept more Central American families expelled, without the opportunity to request protection, under a legally dubious pandemic public health order (“Title 42”). Both the continued closure of the U.S. border to most asylum seekers and Mexico’s militarized response to migration underscore the need for the U.S. government to demonstrate immediately that its priority at home and at the regional level is a rights-respecting, humane, sustainable response to migration. With high-level Biden administration officials visiting Mexico this week to discuss migration issues, the U.S. government should accelerate efforts to reach this goal at the U.S.-Mexico border as soon as possible, including in the short term by fully reversing the “Remain in Mexico” (MPP) program and presenting a time bound framework to end Title 42 expulsions, allowing migrant families and individuals to make asylum claims and have them adjudicated in the United States.