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Mexico: Costs of immigration enforcement

The following article, published in the November-December 2015 NewsNotes, was written by Sustainable Pathways to Peace and Security intern Nicholas Alexandrou.

Tens of thousands of men, women, and children continue to seek escape from violence and poverty in Central America by migrating to the U.S. But since the start of Mexico’s “Plan Frontera Sur” (Southern Border Plan) in July 2014, they have a strong chance of being detained and promptly deported by the Mexican government long before they reach the U.S. border.

The U.S. and Mexican governments have not addressed the root causes of the flow of migrants from Central America to the U.S.; rather, they have worked together to stop the flow by force.

The “Plan Frontera Sur” implemented under Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, with tacit support from the Obama administration, aims to enhance security along the Mexican-Guatemalan border by creating a wall of containment to apprehend migrants before they reach the U.S. border. This has entailed the militarization of surveillance and enforcement, with 5,000 federal police and military troops sent to reinforce the poorly paid and equipped border police. 

While the program remains a Mexican initiative, the U.S. has provided both technical and financial support. Pillar 3 under the Merida Initiative calls for the creation of a “21st century border” –  an objective that has allowed the U.S. to channel funds to “Plan Frontera Sur” amounting to US$79 million for the fiscal year 2015, according to a report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service. Also, the Department of Defense has trained Mexican troops patrolling the border and enhanced their surveillance capabilities. 

In June, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights released a statement severely criticizing the program over the treatment of those detained by security forces. Conditions for those deported also remain poor despite existing laws and mechanisms on the proper treatment of migrants during deportation. 

A recent report by the International Verification Mission of the Project Counseling Service examined the conditions of Honduran migrants detained and deported by the Mexican government. The report identified a lack of proper social services as well as abuse and negligence by Mexican authorities. From detention to deportation, facilities lacked proper hygiene conditions, poor sanitation, and improper access to medicines. Those interviewed by the mission members reported instances of Mexican authorities physically and sexually abusing migrants, soliciting bribes, and failing to inform migrants of their right to apply for asylum. 

 Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración or INM) estimated that between January and November 2014, Mexico repatriated 86,949 Central Americans, of whom 16,600 were minors – a larger number than the total number of minors Mexico repatriated in the entirety of 2013 (8,446 out of 49,201 Central Americans). 

A recent analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) identified a resurgence in the number of migrants crossing the U.S-Mexico border. The U.S. Border Patrol data for the month of August 2015 included the largest monthly number of apprehended minors (4,632) since the unprecedented wave of children that made U.S. headlines in mid-2014. In comparison, U.S. Border Patrol reported to have apprehended 3,138 children in August 2013. 

The WOLA staff offer two probable causes for this increase: the adoption of new routes and methods by smugglers and the worsening violence in El Salvador (See the September-October 2015 NewsNotes, “El Salvador: Instability foments violence”). Tighter security along the Mexican-Guatemalan border has caused smugglers to shift migration routes to more isolated paths far removed from state enforcement. These new routes leave migrants ever more vulnerable to criminal gangs and the elements. 

More and more families and unaccompanied minors attempting to migrate to the U.S  are refugees fleeing violence – a genuine reason for asylum. A recent opinion piece by Sonia Nazario in the New York Times highlights the struggle of those fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. Many do so under the threat of either being forcibly recruited or killed by gangs. 

While the violence and poverty continues unabated in Central America, reactionary immigration policy like “Plan Frontera Sur” has increased the instances of human rights abuses, especially for those seeking asylum. The short-term result of fewer migrants reaching the U.S. border dissipated quickly, as new migration routes formed – albeit more dangerous, isolated, and expensive for those fleeing. Unless the U.S., Mexico, and Central American governments address the underlining root causes of migration, the problems of human rights abuse and rising migration numbers will persist.