Though Central Americans for years have accounted for an increasing percentage of overall migrants crossing the U.S. border illegally, their numbers grew dramatically in early 2019. In May 2019 alone, about 130,000 people were arrested trying to cross the border. The composition of migrant flows also shifted, with the number of individuals in families apprehended at the border by U.S. authorities growing from 105,000 during all of 2018 to almost 330,000 during the first five months of 2019. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are currently the main sources of illegal immigration to the United States that pass illegally through Mexico. Honduras is the second-largest source of migrants entering the U.S. illegally.
A deal in June with Mexico to reduce the number of immigrants crossing illegally into the United States caused the White House to back off from a threat to slap tariffs on imports from Mexico. Under the deal, Mexico agreed to step up its efforts to prevent migrants from crossing its territory to the U.S. border. But with swelling unrest in Honduras likely to worsen the economy and spark more migration through Mexico to the United States, Washington may well return to its tariff threat.
A Migrant Surge Spawns a Tariff Threat
In May, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to enact tariffs of up to 25 percent on all Mexican imports within months unless Mexico took immediate steps to reduce illegal migration from Central America through its territory. Almost certainly intended as a negotiating tactic to help the Trump administration further its aims on curbing illegal immigration, the threat would have had major consequences for Mexico's economy had tariffs been enacted.
To stave off economic damage, the Mexican government agreed in June to deploy 15,000 troops to reinforce key crossing points along the U.S.-Mexico border and to send 5,000 troops to guard the Guatemala-Mexico border, a key crossing point for Central Americans entering Mexico. The two nations agreed that if migrant apprehensions on the U.S. side of the border weren't significantly reduced by early September, then talks on additional measures to curb illegal immigration would begin.
Nearly a month after deferring tariffs against Mexico, the Trump administration is likely crafting its response to the new Mexican security measures. The White House demanded that Mexico reduce migrant crossings so that Customs and Border Protections arrests on the U.S. side of the border fall to around 20,000 per month. The Trump administration probably settled on this number because it would equal the record-low number of arrests seen in late 2016 and early 2017. It is unlikely, however, that this number will decline to anywhere near this amount within three months.
Unrest in Honduras Will Fuel the Migrant Surge
Honduras will become a major contributing factor complicating Mexico's ongoing negotiations over immigration with the United States. The roots of that instability are the 2009 coup against former President Manuel Zelaya and a closely contested 2017 presidential election, compounded by drought and crop failure. Throughout May and June, Honduras' left-wing public sector health and education unions and Zelaya's Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre) mounted extensive nationwide protests against President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his ruling National Party. The protesters are not trying to overthrow Hernandez, whose power bases, such as the army and police, remain loyal to him. Instead, Libre is trying to position itself as a viable contender for power in Honduras' November 2021 presidential election. Hernandez is an increasingly unpopular figure, with high-profile corruption cases and frequent blackouts in major cities such as Tegucigalpa, the capital, and San Pedro Sula diminishing his low approval rating.
Libre and its political allies are largely focused on pressuring the president and showing their strength through street demonstrations and roadblocks. The opposition can mount such protests for months at a time, though their intensity ebbs and flows. Numerous triggers for renewed left-wing protests exist, such as ongoing corruption scandals and often heavy-handed police tactics with protesters.
The White House could use rising or even steady migration driven by Honduran unrest to press Mexico to accept a "safe third country" agreement or else be slapped with tariffs.
Such demonstrations will disrupt the flow of goods, fuel and laborers between virtually all major cities in the country. Lengthy demonstrations will also hit key exports such as textiles and automotive wiring harnesses. Extensive disruptions to daily life will cause greater economic pain for the country's informal labor force, which accounts for around half of all laborers. The informal labor force depends on untaxed, largely menial labor and is largely employed in the service industry. Prolonged demonstrations will exacerbate the already-heavy incentives for informal laborers to leave the country. So as protests stifle economic activity, they will drive more migrants north.
The trend of rising migration is likely to develop in late 2019 and early 2020, just as Mexico is again trying to deflect the threat of tariffs from the United States. At their next meeting with White House officials, representatives of the Mexican government will likely tout achievements made in sealing the border and deploying a long-term security presence there, deterring more and more migrants. The White House meanwhile will likely make additional demands of Mexico, the most important of which will be that Mexico sign a "safe third country" agreement with the United States, which will designate Mexico a safe place for migrants seeking asylum and make it difficult for them to request asylum in the United States, and will likely threaten Mexico with tariffs again if it does not.
The Mexican government will try to delay agreeing to such a deal until after the November 2020 U.S. presidential election in case Trump loses and the subsequent president decouples trade policy with Mexico from the question of illegal immigration. But Mexico may not be able to delay making concessions to the United States until then if the pace of illegal border crossings swells too quickly.