Partners in Crime: U.S. and Mexico in the Central American Refugee Crisis

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Written by Jeanette Bonifaz

President Donald Trump’s promise to secure the US-Mexico border by building a wall, in addition to his pledge to deport an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants, has sparked condemnation from U.S. Democrats and Mexican government officials alike. While it is their right to denounce what they perceive to be discriminatory policy proposals and xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the White House, it is worth noting that both the Mexican and U.S. governments have a harrowing record with regard to the protection and recognition of refugees from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a region known as the Northern Triangle.

When it comes to the Central American refugee crisis, one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in recent history, the United States and Mexico have acted as partners in crime. Trump’s policy proposals are a continuation, in an even more pernicious manner, of what these escapees of violence and poverty have been subjected to for years.

The Northern Triangle is one of the most dangerous regions in the entire world, and many of its citizens are attempting to flee unmerciful violence, poverty, and overall despair before it overwhelms them and their families. According to a 2016 report by Amnesty International, “El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have become virtual war zones where lives seem to be expendable and millions live in constant terror at what gang members or public security forces can do to them or their loved ones.” Nevertheless, in direct violation of Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that “[n]o Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever” to the countries where they face danger, Mexico and the United States have established schemes that do exactly that.

In 2014, Mexico launched the Southern Border Program, a border security initiative that aims to stop Central American migrants long before they reach the US-Mexico border. This program is politically beneficial to the United States, since it makes it easier to outsource its dirty workand avoid accountability. Former US President Barack Obama  even praised Mexico’s efforts by stating that the US-Mexico border was more secure in part “because of strong efforts by Mexico, including at its southern border.” While the Southern Border Program has decreased the number of apprehensions at the U.S. border, it has not actually stopped citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras from attempting to flee to Mexico and the United States.

In fact, the program has increased the amount of danger and violence these migrants face. Migrants are now facing heightened human smugglers’ fees and longer and more dangerous routes, making them more likely to fall victim to organized crime and human trafficking. Despite the fact that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto pitched the program as protective of immigrants, so far the evidence proves otherwise.

Mexico’s treatment of Central Americans fleeing their countries illustrates a clear double standard, as it is denying its southern neighbors the same opportunity many of its citizens have utilized over the years. Mexican citizens, although recently at an all-time low, have immigrated to the United States for decades – though it is worth noting they often receive less than ideal treatment from the U.S. security apparatus. Despite this, over the past three years, the Obama administration provided equipment, training, and more than $75 million to Mexico’s southern border security. Consequently, Mexico has been cracking down on Central American refugees with increasingly alarming zeal.

Mexico security enforcement and apprehensions increased significantly between 2010 and 2015, as deportations from Mexico rose by approximately 180 percent. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments are deporting potential asylum seekers who face incredible danger in their home countries, some of whom are killed shortly after their return. While immigration in both countries is a security issue, it is first and foremost a humanitarian issue that calls for comprehensive and humane policy responses, as mandated by international law.

With Trump’s domestic immigration enforcement executive orders and his promise to deport between 2 and 3 million undocumented immigrants, the need for a regional approach based on humanitarian law in stronger than ever. From former American presidents George W. Bush to Barack Obama, who received the nickname Deporter-In-Chief because of the unprecedented number of deportations under his watch, undocumented immigrants have lived in constant fear of being returned to their countries. Raids of undocumented immigrants have reportedly increased since Trump took office and will likely continue to do so given the expanded criteria of who is considered a criminal.

As inequality and poverty continue to devastate communities, war continues to escalate, and climate change threatens to displace millions, the number of people forced to leave their countries will not subside. Mexico’s Southern Border Program has decreased U.S. apprehensions while increasing human rights violations and failing to deter emigration from the Northern Triangle.  What is needed is a regional approach based on international human rights and humanitarian law that protects refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing their home countries in order to survive. If Mexico and U.S. lawmakers in the United States want to make a difference, it is not enough to criticize the Trump administration. They need to look at their own policies to understand how they have contributed to the current crisis.

About the author: Jeanette Bonifaz is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Jeanette earned her BA in International Relations, Latin American Studies, and International Development from American University in 2013. Her work has been published online in Common Dreams, openDemocracy, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, The Huffington Post, and CEPR’s The America’s Blog: Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber.

UN Photo:  Guatemalan children living in refugee camps, in the State of Campeche, wait to get their food ration. Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. UN Photo/Pat Goudvis