Mexico has a new government going into 2019, but the country's approach to migration will remain largely the same. New Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's approach to illegal migration will be similar to his predecessors, meaning Mexican authorities will continue detaining and deporting tens of thousands of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador each month. Lopez Obrador will also press the United States and Canada to help fund social programs in Central America designed to offer citizens greater economic opportunities. And maintaining the status quo on immigration allows Mexico's president to avoid a wider political confrontation with Washington.
Lopez Obrador's immigration policy will be a compromise solution shaped heavily by foreign and domestic constraints. Despite campaign trail rhetoric in which he called migration in the Americas a human right and offered refugee status to Central American migrants, the threat of U.S. political backlash and domestic perceptions of Central American immigration will push Lopez Obrador toward a relatively conventional immigration policy. The Trump administration will be preparing for the 2020 presidential election in 2019, and any reduction in Mexico's efforts to stem migration would quickly gain White House attention — much as the Nov. 2018 Honduran migrant caravan attracted focus. Domestically, opening the door to more Central Americans risks an electoral backlash from the poorer states that brought Lopez Obrador to power — many voters feel migrants naturally compete for jobs and government resources.
Mexico's government has helped the United States curb migration from both Mexico and Central America for decades. Though illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border is a shadow of what it once was, the Trump administration will still press Mexico to arrest and deport more Central American migrants. Mexico's incoming administration favors more humanitarian measures for Central Americans, but pursuing them risks drawing the White House's ire.
Lopez Obrador will most likely offer Central American governments financial and economic assistance while maintaining the broad contours of the previous government's immigration policy. Instead of approving legislation to significantly expand legal avenues for Central Americans to live and work in Mexico, Lopez Obrador will focus his efforts on convincing Canada and the United States to fund programs to keep Central Americans employed at home and reduce their incentive to emigrate. Lopez Obrador proposed such an initiative to U.S. President Donald Trump in July, but the plan struggled to gain traction because of the Trump administration's preference for increasing border enforcement as its primary means of reducing illegal immigration. Moreover, such assistance would be unlikely to slow migration significantly because factors such as drought and high crime will continue to plague Central Americans.
What Washington Wants
In general, the White House views Lopez Obrador's efforts to facilitate migration to Mexico — even for humanitarian reasons — as a threat to its attempts to restrict illegal immigration. Washington would prefer Mexico maintain a strong military and police presence on routes into the country, while also providing few legal avenues for a Central Americans who do not hold a valid U.S. or Mexican visa (effectively everyone attempting to cross into the United States illegally) to remain in Mexico.
Under Lopez Obrador, Mexico's government will continue the previous administration's practice of granting humanitarian asylum on a case-by-case basis, through problems with Washington will arise if Mexico considers granting significantly more humanitarian and work visas for recently-arrived Central Americans. The vast majority of Central Americans are ineligible for temporary visas or permanent residence permits under Mexico's current legislation, and they face arrest if they are found to have entered Mexico illegally. But Lopez Obrador could change that by amending the law, which would require only a majority vote in both houses of Congress.
Lopez Obrador campaigned on a populist platform that promised change, but international and domestic factors will push him to leave his country's immigration policies largely untouched.
The immigration-focused Trump administration views proposals for more humanitarian visas as a threat to U.S. policy because Mexico lacks the means to detect and rapidly remove people lacking the required legal status to remain. Would-be migrants who abandon their asylum petitions in Mexico could, for example, easily remain and work in the country illegally until they can save enough money to attempt crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Moreover, a plan to increase the number of humanitarian visas Mexico grants would create business uncertainty as investors try to anticipate the impact of any U.S. retaliation to Mexico's perceived leniency on immigration.
Domestic opinion in Mexico will also drive Lopez Obrador's administration to uphold existing restrictions on illicit migration from the south. Lopez Obrador holds a commanding majority in both houses of Mexico's Congress, but he would still have to negotiate with smaller parties in the Senate to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to pass constitutional reforms. And if Lopez Obrador passes legislation to open the doors to more migrants, he risks harming his prospects in lower house elections in July 2021.
Recently-arrived Central Americans compete directly with Mexicans for jobs in Mexico's extensive informal economy, which employs roughly half of the country's workforce. Loosening immigration restrictions would increase job competition in Mexican states with high poverty levels, such as Lopez Obrador's home state of Tabasco, as well as Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. Losing lower house seats from these states would risk significantly eroding Lopez Obrador's majority in the legislative body, and could even force him to negotiate with the opposition to pass constitutional reforms during the second half of his term.