Mexico Expert: 'Failed States' Pushing Large Numbers Of Immigrants

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2019 - 2:45pm

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migrants detained at the border
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Migrants detained at the border in El Paso in March 2019.

LAUREN GILGER: Now let's turn to Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Texas. While we've heard that these near-record numbers of immigrants being apprehended in southern Arizona and along the border are "unprecedented and unsustainable" according to Cronkite News, Payan takes the long view. I spoke with him more about this and asked him to put this into perspective for us. How do these numbers compare when you look historically at what's happened in the border?

TONY PAYAN: Well, in some ways these numbers are unprecedented, but they're not necessarily the worst we've ever seen at the U.S.-Mexico border. If you go back to the 1990s, when the numbers were actually climbing very fast, and they didn't peak until about 2001, 2002 and then back down a little bit and then back up in 2005, 2006, 2007, and then back down again to historic lows. So these are not the highest numbers. They're certainly the highest numbers we've seen in the last 10-to-12 years, but they're not the highest, the historic highest numbers that we've seen at the U.S.-Mexico border.

GILGER: But this is different than it has been in the past, right, in terms of the demographics, the people who are coming and the reasons they're coming, right?

PAYAN: That is correct. The difference is that in the '90s and the early 2000s and mid 2000s, most of the undocumented migrants were Mexicans displaced by NAFTA, by rapid urbanization in Mexico and on and on, and eventually that kind of subsided. And at that time, it was mostly human smugglers, individuals that organized handfuls of individuals and moved them across the border in exchange for $300, $500, $1,000 per individual. What we are seeing now is essentially what we call the caravanization of immigration that is hundreds and sometimes thousands of people moving across Mexico, right up to the Mexican-U.S. border and then turning themselves in at that time. Of course it was people trying to make a run for the border between ports of entry and make it to some U.S. city and then work. This time, they're turning themselves in and asking for asylum. They're coming in droves, organized perhaps by human smugglers and perhaps animated by some pro-immigrant organizations and, of course, the push forces in Central America. The number of Mexicans coming this time is really a very small percentage compared to all the different nationalities Central American, South Americans, Caribbeans, Africans and even Middle Easterners who are now traversing through Mexico.

GILGER: When we talk about immigration historically there's always that this talk of a push-pull like you mentioned. Can you give us a sense of of what the push is for people at this point and how it's creating such high numbers of people from all over who are making this really long and really sometimes dangerous trek to our border?

PAYAN: Several factors I think are pushing people. Number one: I don't discard of course the possibility that there are individuals who are organizing people and saying, "Hey, a bunch of us are banding together, and we're going to go to Mexico, and then we're going to make it to the U.S. border. We're going to turn ourselves in for asylum, and the asylum system will have to consider our application" That's obviously one of the important forces behind these caravans and these numbers of families and unaccompanied minors. But more important, I think, is that when you look at Guatemala and when you look at Honduras — particularly Honduras — you're looking at failed states. We don't often think about that, but those countries are really collapsing. I mean the economic opportunities are way low the unemployment is too high. The informal economy is too high. The growth is almost null. In general, investment is way down. The government is not functioning. The security situation is truly atrocious. Gangs roaming around the countries. And I've been to Honduras several times, and I can tell you that they charge a tax to every household, and different territories are controlled by different gangs. It's really a very difficult environment to live, to raise a family and to work. And that is pushing people out. That's making people organize, and that is of course presenting a good opportunity for these human smugglers to get these people moving. Now, El Salvador somehow managed to get its act together. There was some aid, some investment, some stronger security in El Salvador. Public safety is getting better, and people are not moving as much. And this is, I think, one of the things that President Trump does not understand and needs to really, truly understand. This is a region where the United States can provide enormous leadership — political, diplomatic and economic leadership — to get the situation there, to work with those governments, to get functioning states and then prevent those people from moving. Simply walling off migrants in southern Mexico, I think, is just not going to work.

GILGER: And you're referring to his threats of of a tariff on Mexican goods if they do not do enough here. So, can you talk a little bit about what it is that that Mexico is doing? We have had a reporter on the southern border in Mexico. It sounds like there is some effort there to stop this and probably a lot more than there has been in the past in Mexico. Are they really not doing enough?

PAYAN: Well, I don't think that Mexico is not doing enough. I think Mexico has been deporting hundreds of thousands of Central Americans back into the northern triangle of that section of the continent. Under the Peña administration, for example, in the last few years, half a million people were deported from Mexico. I think Mr. Lopez Obrador when he took office in December of last year did let up a little bit. I think he cut the budget for the Migration Institute in Mexico, and I think that was a mistake because it sent the wrong message that people that Mexico was open for business. Essentially any migrants could come in through Mexico and then right up to the U.S. border. I think that was a mistake, and that's where I think President Trump wanted to put pressure on, get that border sealed or increase the resources dedicated to sealing that border again. And I think he managed to do it through a terrorist threat for now. I am not entirely convinced that this is going to stem the flow because it doesn't address the fundamental push forces which is we have two failed states in Central America and of course other nationalities that are coming to Central America and pushing through Mexico. I don't think that there is any number, a magical number of troops that Mexico can deploy to the southern border that will not be breached by these caravans and these thousands of migrants. Many of them will still make it through.

GILGER: That was my conversation with Tony Payan director of the Mexico Center at the Baker Institute At Rice University about the near record breaking numbers of migrant apprehensions at our southern border last month.

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