President Donald Trump’s deal with Mexico faces such huge logistical hurdles that neither country may be able to carry out its promises.
One key part of the deal is Mexico’s agreement to deploy its newly formed national guard to intercept and possibly deport migrants who cross its southern border. But Mexico may not have that force trained and ready to deal with a population of asylum seekers.
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The deal will also expand the Trump administration’s policy of keeping migrants waiting in Mexico while their asylum applications are processed in the U.S. But Mexico is already struggling to handle more than 11,000 migrants who the U.S. has dumped back into that country since Trump rolled out the program in January.
Neither the U.S. nor Mexico has offered a detailed plan for how the counter-migration strategy will be implemented, even as both countries face a tight timeline to produce results. Officials from the two countries are expected to meet in 45 days to evaluate the effect on migrant flows, and the U.S. will monitor results daily.
But border watchers say they have no idea how Mexico will handle the joint demands, particularly as the massive case backloads in U.S. immigration courts could keep migrants waiting south of the U.S. border for months or even years.
“To try to imagine how they’re going to double or even triple those numbers over the next few months is kind of mind boggling,” said Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “I just literally don’t know where all those people are going to go.”
Here’s a closer look at obstacles to implementing the agreement:
1. Mexico’s capacity to absorb migrants
The most immediate pressure point will be on Mexican border communities. As part of the deal reached Friday, the U.S. vowed unilaterally to expand its “remain in Mexico” program — formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols — from targeted areas to the entire southwest border.
More than 11,000 migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico under the program since its launch in January, according to the Mexican government. But that’s just with it operating in Border Patrol’s San Diego and El Centro sectors in California, and its El Paso sector in Texas and New Mexico.
That number is poised to skyrocket in the coming weeks, even as U.S. immigration courts already face a massive case backlog that has worsened in recent years.
The Hope Border Institute, a pro-migrant group operating around El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Ciudad Juárez, has encountered migrants sent to Juárez with U.S. court hearings scheduled for April 2020 — nearly one year ahead.
“How do you house and feed and potentially gainfully employ those people if they’ve got a very long time to wait?” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who resigned in May 2018. “I have no idea to what extent Mexican border cities and crossings are ready for that, although I suspect they’re not.”
2. Scaling up “remain in Mexico”
The Trump administration, too, will need to scramble to expand “remain in Mexico.”
The initiative currently operates out of border sectors and ports with courts and temporary holding facilities nearby. At more remote border outposts, the agency may need to procure space for courts and erect tents to house migrants. The U.S. also could face difficulties communicating with migrants forced to stay in Mexico during asylum proceedings.
Resolving those issues won’t be “an overnight kind of thing,” according to a Homeland Security Department official familiar with the program. “The system wasn’t meant to work this way.”
At the same time, Justice Department attorneys will be tasked with defending the program in court. In May the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed federal immigration officials to continue returning migrants pending its ruling on a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
3. Mexico’s nascent National Guard
The second core component of the deal — Mexico’s deployment of its national guard to stem migration — could easily backfire.
It was only in February that Mexico’s Congress approved the creation of a national guard, and the legal framework to permit its operation was finalized just last month.
The initial force — which is set to reach 83,000 members by the end of the year — will consist of Mexican federal and military police officers, but it isn’t clear they will be trained adequately to deal with migrant families.
“Historically, we’ve seen in Mexico that the priority has been to detain and deport people, over ensuring that they are informed of their rights, including the right to seek protection,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The Mexican government pledged to deploy 6,000 guard members to its southern border and throughout the country.
Getting the numbers shouldn’t be a problem, since Mexico can draw on the Federal Police and Army and Navy police units. The greater difficulty will be whether the guard members will have the skills necessary to deal with migrant children, and to follow proper asylum procedures.
4. A sketchy aid commitment to Central America
The Mexican government considers funding for Central American development a major priority, but the agreement struck Friday doesn’t commit any new funds to the effort.
The Trump administration in March said it would slash hundreds of millions in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the inability of those countries’ governments to halt the outward flow of migrants. The agreement doesn’t restore those funds, either.
A joint statement issued by the U.S. and Mexico Friday spoke of addressing the root causes of migration only in general terms — with no funding commitments. The document said the two countries were devoted to “promoting development and economic growth in southern Mexico and the success of promoting prosperity, good governance and security in Central America.”
Speaking to reporters Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. didn’t agree to provide any aid money as part of the deal.
5. A complicated asylum deal
Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Monday that if the current set of measures fails to stem the northward flow of migrants within 45 days, the Mexican government will need to begin discussions over a regional asylum pact.
He said discussions would involve Guatemala, Panama and Brazil, three nations that are transit points or destinations for migrants.
Ebrard reiterated that aspect of the deal during a news conference Tuesday in Mexico City. Notably, he also said the U.S. — following a consultation with Mexican officials — would decide whether Mexico’s counter-migration efforts had been sufficient.
The task of finalizing a regional asylum agreement could be enormously complicated and require the approval of legislative bodies in multiple countries, including Mexico.
But a slow-moving process could benefit the Mexican government in its negotiations with Trump, who faces reelection next year.
“It diversifies and spreads the risk, and certainly slows the calendar,” said Jacobson, the former ambassador, “which is what they want to do.”