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  /  News   /  Border in flux as US, Mexico look inward

Border in flux as US, Mexico look inward

U.S.-Mexico border management is entering a new chapter, with questions growing about how major political and policy shifts on both sides of the Rio Grande will affect migration patterns.

President Biden on Tuesday announced an executive order cracking down on asylum, potentially changing the calculus for tens of thousands of migrants hoping to enter the United States, just two days after Mexico’s ruling party scored a massive electoral win that consolidated its grip on power.

Major U.S. border policy changes usually lead to temporary lulls in crossings, a reprieve that Biden would welcome as the U.S. election heats up.

But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has so far been the key factor in keeping a check on crossing numbers; López Obrador took on the task of continental migration enforcer amid a presidential election that would make or break his legacy.

The Biden administration has gone out of its way to avoid criticism of López Obrador’s efforts to curtail Mexico’s independent electoral institute and other autonomous democratic institutions, and it timed its border announcement to come after the election of his successor.

“I think [López Obrador] has gotten a lot of things [from the United States], not just during the electoral cycle, but also during the last five years of his administration. I mean, the White House has maintained silence on a lot of anti-democratic measures that have occurred under his administration,” said Lila Abed, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

López Obrador’s chosen successor, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, is set to take office on Oct. 1.

Sheinbaum was widely expected to win the election, but she — and López Obrador’s Morena party — delivered a crushing landslide that’s put Morena within a few Senate seats of a constitutional supermajority.

“I think Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to be completely honest with you, is more focused on approving his constitutional and legal forms in Congress than he is on cooperating with the United States,” said Abed.

Those reforms, which include an electoral overhaul and deep changes to the judiciary, have been in López Obrador’s sights for some time, but his legislative supporters did not have the required two-thirds majority to reform the constitution.

Morena officials have indicated they’ll push the reforms through in September, ahead of Sheinbaum’s inauguration, rattling financial markets and sending the Peso down from 17 per dollar before the election to 18 on Thursday.

That instability, coupled with the near certainty of achieving his long-desired judicial reform, will draw López Obrador’s focus to domestic issues and the transition as the United States litigates its own federal election.

Biden’s announcement on Tuesday, a historic curtailment of asylum rights, followed two failed Senate votes to codify similar asylum restrictions into law.

Republicans derailed those Senate votes, the result of a months-long bipartisan negotiation between centrists and conservatives.

The Biden administration saw those failed votes as an opportunity to highlight Republican inaction on the border by unilaterally enacting their own stringent measures.

It’s unclear whether independent voters were impressed by the move, but Biden’s progressive allies were not.

“He’s never gonna get credit from Fox News or, you know, or the Trumpsters for anything he does. Like the last time he had an anti-asylum policy change, I walked into the committee the next day — all the Republican members of Congress were still calling him ‘open borders Biden,'” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas).

But the asylum restrictions did supercharge calls for expanding legal pathways both for migrants leaving their countries and for longtime undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus responded furiously to Biden’s plans and made clear its expectations for a follow-up liberalizing of the rules for some undocumented immigrants to rectify their paperwork.

The asylum announcement did not come as a surprise: Whispers of its imminent arrival after the Mexican election circulated among immigration watchers for weeks.

The likelihood of an immigrant relief package has been similarly telegraphed, though progressives say they’re not counting their money until the deal is done.

“I’ve learned that nothing is guaranteed around here, and so we’re gonna keep pushing for it until it’s, you know, the ink is dry on it,” said Casar.

And the Biden administration is jittery after its rollout of the asylum restrictions engendered confusion and predictable wrath from the right, but not much praise.

Officials held several calls with reporters during the week explaining the contents of the executive order. On Friday, senior administration officials expressed frustration at “misconceptions that are out there” about the asylum rule and presidential proclamation “because we have continued to see some reporting that seems to kind of misunderstand how the two work together and the changes that they’ve made to our processes at the border.”

The misunderstandings of how the new policy will work seem to transcend borders.

López Obrador said his government wants the Biden administration to reach agreements to directly deport third-country nationals to their home countries, potentially reducing the number of non-Mexicans expelled to Mexico.

“We are seeking an agreement so they can arrive at an agreement so if they take a decision to deport someone they do it directly. And we’re helping to reach that agreement. Because they come to Mexico and — we don’t have a problem, we treat them very well, the migrants, everyone. But why triangulate?” López Obrador said at his daily press conference Wednesday.

The Biden administration’s asylum restrictions — like the Trump administration’s before them — rely on Mexico’s willingness to take in a number of third-country nationals who are expelled shortly after they encounter U.S. officials at the border.

Mexico has so far been accepting about 30,000 Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Cuban and Haitian nationals per month, but the details of any standing or future agreements on the matter are murky.

That highlights the core problem that makes global migration so difficult to manage as opposed to other cross-border issues such as trade, according to Abed.

“The commercial disputes, energy, biotech, GMO, corn, the auto — the rules of origin on the auto sector, all of those have a way to resolve themselves,” said Abed, citing the mechanisms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement dispute resolution as an example.

“Migration, on the other hand, is not very easily solved. It includes a, you know, an interdisciplinary, cross-sectional strategy, regional comprehensive strategy that has to address poverty, inequality, violence, political instability, lack of economic opportunities, climate change. I mean, these are huge issues. These don’t have a clear path of how to solve them.”