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 facing when they hit Mexico, they know what they're facing with the Trump administration. And yet they keep marching and they keep moving forward," says Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and a lecturer on Mexican migratory policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some 300,000 migrants try to make it through Mexico each year, explains Leutert, who met with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis in Mexico City before heading to the Mexican border with Guatemala for research. Migrants who go it alone face steep smuggling fees, extortion, and kidnapping, leading some to sacrifice migrating under the radar in exchange for the safety of caravans. Says Leutert: “There is something political about what they’re doing and standing up and saying, ‘Look at our country: We don’t have a future there, we have the right to seek asylum in Mexico or the United States.’”
Mexico’s policy centers on apprehension and deportation, but it’s becoming more than just a transit point: from 2014 to 2017, the number of migrants seeking asylum there grew sevenfold, with the total expected to hit 23,000 this year. The country finds its refugee system short-staffed and overburdened while confronting a crisis that shows no signs of ebbing. On top of that, as discussed in this episode, factors like climate change only threaten to dial up the pressure.
All of this happens as Mexico prepares to inaugurate a new leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The future president has suggested offering work visas to Central Americans and calling all countries involved to increase development aid to the Northern Triangle—even as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to cut it. But, when it comes to the complexity of handling migration, Leutert cautions: “Just like the Peña Nieto administration and the Calderón administration and the Vicente Fox administration, you’re going to see the López Obrador team hit the same challenges.”
Despite how formidable it may seem to solve the problems that spark migration, Leutert, who covers the issue for Lawfare, offers recommendations. For example, the United States could offer temporary work visas, Mexico could take a risk-management approach, and there should be a more dignified treatment of asylum-seekers overall. Because, ultimately, migrants leave Central America out of need rather than desire. “People don’t want to march in caravans,” says Leutert. “There are a lot of things that every involved country could do if they were really serious about stopping this.”