Joe Biden took office promising to put a friendlier face on US immigration policy. He put an end to a scheme requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, promised to restore the US asylum system and pledged to spend $4bn on addressing the root causes of migration in Central America.
But as ever-increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors arrive at the US southern border and create a domestic political crisis for the US president, he is turning to a tactic used by his predecessors – including Donald Trump: outsourcing immigration enforcement to Mexico.
Trump pressured Mexico into deploying its newly formed national guard to its border with Guatemala in June 2019, having threatened escalating tariffs on Mexican imports.
Analysts see something similar happening again in Mexico – but this time with more promises of cooperation on issues such as sharing Covid-19 vaccines, rather than threats of economic catastrophe.
“I don’t see why Biden would have to change a foreign policy [on migration] when it’s worked for the US,” said Javier Urbano, coordinator of the migration affairs program at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
“Whether we like it or not, what Donald Trump achieved was a certain type of control from the United States over Mexico’s border migration policy with Central America,” he added. “If this policy works to significantly reduce migration, why should they change strategy?”
Senior US diplomats will travel to Mexico City for talks on Tuesday on stemming the flow of Central American migrants.
The US border tsar and former ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, and the national security council director for the western hemisphere, Juan González, say their meeting was “to develop an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration”, according to a statement from the White House.
“The main topic will be cooperation on development in Central America and southern Mexico, in addition to joint effort on secure, orderly and regular migration,” tweeted Roberto Velasco Álvarez, undersecretary for North America in the Mexican foreign ministry.
Mexico recently deployed police, national guard members and immigration officers to its border with Guatemala. Their stated objective was to protect child migrants, who the National Immigration Institute said were being “used by criminal organisations as a safe passage document” for transiting Mexico. (Mexico recently enacted a law forbidding children to be held in migrant detention centres.)
On Friday police in riot gear, immigration agents and national guard members marched through the streets of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of southern Chiapas state, in a show of force.
Mexico also restricted non-essential travel on its northern and southern borders for health reasons – a rare occurrence in a country, which has not suspended flights from countries hit hard by Covid-19 and has not demanded Covid-19 tests for entry.
The deployment, along with the decision to restrict travel at the border, coincided with the US government agreeing to send 2.7m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to its southern neighbour. (The US government will deliver 1.5m doses of the vaccine to Canada, too.)
Both governments denied the vaccines were sent to Mexico with strings attached – and Mexico will provide the US with the equivalent number of doses at a later date. Mexican officials hailed the vaccination as a warm gesture of friendship and the rebirth of North American cooperation – a relationship that appeared to wither under Trump.
But the situation stoked a sense of deja vu in Mexico, especially after four years of Trump’s hardball on migration matters – in which Mexico effectively became the US president’s wall stopping migrants heading north.
Even before Trump’s term in office, Mexico unveiled a scheme known as the southern border plan in 2014 to slow an outflow of child migrants from Central America.
“This isn’t a surprise because we’ve seen it before,” Carlos Heredia, professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics, said of the perceived exchange.
“Migrants,” he added, “have become a bargaining chip.”