Thousands of people – many of them women and children – are making their way in migrant caravans on foot, through tear gas and over rivers to get from Central America to the United States. “They know what they’re up against when they hit Mexico, they know what they’re up against with the Trump administration. And yet they keep walking and they keep moving forward,” said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and a lecturer in Mexican migration policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some 300,000 migrants attempt to cross into Mexico each year, says Leutert, who met AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis in Mexico City before heading to Mexico’s border with Guatemala for research. Migrants who go it alone face high smuggling fees, extortion and kidnapping, leading some to sacrifice under-the-radar migration in exchange for caravan safety. Leutert says: “There is something political in what they do and stand up and say: ‘Look at our country: we have no future there, we have the right to seek asylum in Mexico or the United States”. ”
Mexico’s policy is centered on arrest and deportation, but it becomes more than just a transit point: from 2014 to 2017, the number of migrants seeking asylum there have increased sevenfold, with a total expected to reach 23,000 this year. The country finds its refugee system short-staffed and overburdened while dealing with a crisis that shows no signs of ebbing. On top of that, as discussed in this episode, factors like climate change only threaten to increase the pressure.
“[Mexico] cannot control the push factors of Central America and it cannot control the pull factors of the United States.”
All of this is happening as Mexico prepares to inaugurate a new leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The future president suggested offering work visas to Central Americans and calling on all countries concerned to increase aid for the development of the Northern Triangle, even as US President Donald Trump threatens to cut it off. But, when it comes to the complexity of managing migration, Leutert cautions: “Just like the Peña Nieto administration, the Calderón administration and the Vicente Fox administration, you’re going to see the López Obrador team take up the same challenges.
Despite how great it may seem to fix the issues that trigger the migration, Leutert, who covers the issue for Lawfare, offers some recommendations. For example, the United States could offer temporary work visas, Mexico could adopt a risk management approach, and there should be more dignified treatment of asylum seekers overall. For, ultimately, migrants leave Central America out of need rather than desire. “People don’t want to walk in caravans,” says Leutert. “There are a lot of things each country involved could do if they really wanted to stop this.”
This episode was produced by Luisa Leme. The music for this podcast was performed at the Americas Society in New York. Find out more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.