Biden’s Immigration Choice and Mexico’s Dilemma

It used to be that Republicans used immigration as a wedge issue during elections to catalyze racist fears and insecurities into votes. Now that’s the strategy of both parties.

The high-level delegation led by Secretaries Antony Blinken and Alejandro Mayorkas to meet with Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City confirmed that the Biden administration has embraced Republican demands to further criminalize and expel immigrants and asylum seekers as a central strategy of his reelection campaign. With Donald Trump and other Republican candidates spouting false information of a “border crisis”, Biden has given up the pretense of immigration rights and reform and turned to hardline contention, while reinforcing Republican rhetoric that migrants are somehow a threat to U.S. security.

Numerous press reports have revealed a tradeoff in the works to grant Republicans certain illegal and inhumane anti-immigrant measures in return for funding for the illegal and inhumane killing in Ukraine and Gaza. These likely include restricting humanitarian visas, increasing deportations and limiting the right to request asylum. The concessions being requested of Mexico may also be part of the sinister dealings.

Immigrant rights and Latino groups, along with the Hispanic and Progressive Caucuses in Congress, have expressed outrage at the measures and at the fact that they have not been advised or included. The Democratic Party risks being divided at a critical moment.

The U.S. delegation to Mexico, which also included Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Ambassador Ken Salazar and Katie Tobin, National Security Council (no human rights officers were involved), met with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Dec. 27. Mexico’s delegation included the Secretaries of Foreign Relations, Government, Security, Defense and Navy. Lopez Obrador (AMLO) warned before the meeting that immigration is rapidly becoming key to US campaigns. Reading the writing on the wall, he decided to at least make Mexico’s cooperation look like a dialogue and not the result of unilateral imposition, and use the meeting to negotiate some points of his own while agreeing in practice to extend the U.S. crackdown on migrants throughout Mexican territory.

As usual in these negotiations, little was made public regarding the outcome. The Joint Communique lists commitments to address “root causes”, disrupt human trafficking networks and promote legal pathways—nothing new there. It also mentions the initiative for Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Nicaraguans that states the US will issue up to 30,000 visas a month for individuals from these countries who meet the criteria, whereas Mexico will accept up to 30,000 expelled from the US who do not.

Mexico’s Dilemma

Perhaps highest on the Mexican agenda is a promise not to use economic punishment to force Mexico to adopt US hardline antiimmigration tactics in an “externalization” of the US border. AMLO specifically requested a face-to-face meeting with Biden in January after the delegation left, indicating that he needs some hard assurances.

But Mexico has very little wiggle room. In the runup to the Mexico City meeting, the US shut down railway crossings at Eagle Pass and El Paso, the crossing at Lukeville, Arizona and partially closed operations in San Diego and Nogales. Business on both sides of the border suffered multimillion-dollar losses due to this coercive show of force. The Mexican government announced that it received a promise that bilateral trade would continue unobstructed. With Mexican elections in June 2024, the opposition is looking for reasons to blame AMLO’s party for any economic disruption caused by refusing to toe the US line on the immigration issue. AMLO seeks to prevent moves like Trump’s 2019 threat to impose import tariffs on Mexico if it refused to support his anti-immigrant measures.

The “initiative” is especially important since Venezuelans surpassed Mexicans in number of apprehensions at the border recently. US sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba have been at the heart of the recent rise in immigration from those countries. AMLO has rightly stated that “root causes” must include elimination of policies that contribute to forced immigration, including sanctions.

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that “Venezuela sanctions drove a collapse in oil revenues, contributing to the largest peacetime contraction in modern history”, which heavily contributed to the humanitarian crisis since 2017. The Great Cities Institute found that current sanctions and other U.S. foreign policies have directly fueled the current immigration crisis. Since Biden eased oil sanctions against Venezuela after an agreement on 2024 elections, there is a window of opportunity here to further ease sanctions that punish the most vulnerable sectors of society and feed out-migration.

Mexico has also been pushing for more aid and investment in Central America and southern Mexico, in particular as a way to address root causes of poverty and unemployment. There has not been much progress on this front, especially compared to what has been spent on border and migrant crackdowns. It is also important to look long and hard at what kind of aid, since U.S: aid and investment has a long history of worsening inequality, displacement and repression in the region.  

The Road Not Taken

President Joe Biden had two clear paths when faced with the Republican strategy to intensify anti-immigration hate and fear before elections. The first is based on facts and human rights. He could confront the outright lies by defusing the hype and hyperbole of a “border crisis” with real data. He could increase legal pathways for migration to reduce pressure at the border in the context of promoting an overall care economy that supports all workers, families and vulnerable sectors and in response to real labor demand. He could promote and publicize the value of immigrants to the U.S. labor force and communities. He could focus on family reunification that protects children and strengthens communities.

There are plenty of policy precedents and hard data to support this option. First, immigration flows at the border are not, in fact, historically unprecedented. Experts agree there have been moments of higher immigration, but data gathering methods have changed making comparisons difficult. Also, one quarter of apprehensions nowdays are repeat attempts. There are currently more than a million fewer Mexican-born people in the United States than five years ago and the percentage of foreign-born population in the U.S. is 13.9% (2022), up only 0.4% since 2015.

There is no invasion or surge. Immigrants tend to be more visible now precisely because many are going through legal channels by requesting asylum. With a backlog of 2 million cases that the government refuses to seriously address, they are forced to wait, sometimes in Mexico. The same is true in Mexico, where many are requesting asylum but face huge wait times and few or no options to make a living meanwhile.

Republican claims that immigrants present a threat due to crime are also demonstrably false. (Fact: undocumented immigrants are half as likely to commit crimes as U.S.-born citizens). Fox has lately been reviving the lie that the southern border is a threat for terrorism. Unfortunately for Fox, there is no evidence of a terrorist attack by someone coming over the southern border since 1975. On the contrary, domestic terrorism committed by U.S.-born citizens, mostly white supremacists, is the number-one source of terrorist attacks in the country and many of them target immigrants.

The last argument, that immigrants steal U.S. jobs, is also unsustainable. The US saw historically low unemployment rates this year. The jobs immigrants usually work at are very difficult to fill—native-born citizens don’t want them. With the labor department reporting shortages, no one can seriously make this argument any more. The Republicans have been reduced to what was their core argument from the beginning: a racist rejection of people of color. Donald Trump said it outright last week while echoing Mein Kampf: immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Biden has chosen the second path—to compete with Republicans by proving himself tough on border control, cracking down on migrants, building the wall and further denying rights and due process. This will prove disastrous to U.S. communities and fatal to many immigrants. It also perpetuates the lie that immigrants are a threat, as hate crimes against them rise. It portrays the border as a danger zone instead a policy failure to address human needs.

It makes Mexico sign on to tactics that empower organized crime, corrupt state agents, militarize policing and increase hardships. This is especially true for women and children and other at-risk groups, including the disabled and sick, and the LGBTQ+ community. Under the criminalization model, researcher Amarela Varela points out that women face a triple threat: patriarchal violence, economic violence, and state-criminal violence. Amnesty International found that six in ten women migrating through Central America and Mexico are raped enroute. The Citizen Council of the National Migration Institute has called for humanitarian and visitors visas so families can travel safely and not be thrown into the hands of organized crime.

US immigration policy should not be based on Republican lies and the desire to fund foreign wars. Mexican immigration policy should not be based on US political ambitions. It is unfair and counterproductive in all senses to try to turn Mexico into an antimigrant police stateto avoid the bad image of doing that in the United States just to appease a rightwing agenda.

Using human suffering, rape, physical abuse and hunger as dissuasion is not a policy option. It’s brutality, and the loss of any sense of humanity.