The viral images documenting U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback seeking to corral Haitian migrants at the Mexican border, combined with what has become an unprecedented mass expulsion of migrants by air to Haiti, reflect a longstanding pattern of racist and xenophobic practices directed at black migrants. These actions also underline human rights violations more generally against migrants in the border region under Trump-era policies that the Biden administration has retained and reinforced – all with Mexico’s complicity.
So while this wielding of state violence by the United States may be exceptional in its gravity, it is representative of more generalized forms of structural violence that have long been at the heart of U.S immigration and border policy across the southern frontier. The Haitian migration crisis also illustrates a new configuration of convergent interests between the United States and Mexico on migration “governance” and border “management” and control, as reflected in Mexican actions against migrants not only on its northern border but also in its own southern regions.
This deepening complicity – though it won’t be called that — will be at the core of the upcoming high-level talks scheduled for Oct. 8 in Mexico City between a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, and their Mexican counterparts.
Mexican foreign policy, meanwhile, has long sought a balance between its largely unavoidable, often uncomfortable interdependency with the United States and its aspirations for regional leadership in Latin America and more broadly within the Global South and at the United Nations. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has recently sought to reposition Mexico in each of these dimensions, as he moves into the second half of his six-year term.
Migration and border control issues will feature strongly at the Mexico City summit. Hundreds of migrant rights organizations and defenders have denounced the U.S. actions against the Haitians and called for the immediate suspension of deportation flights to Haiti. A top Biden administration official issued a scathing critique of the practices as he was leaving his post, and the still new U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the U.N. Children’s Agency (UNICEF), the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have jointly called for a comprehensive regional protection response to Haitians on the move throughout the Western hemisphere. Thousands are trapped at Colombia’s border with Panama, at the edge of the dangerous Darien Gap, waiting for an opportunity to continue their journey north. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS has recently echoed these concerns as well.
U.S. Expulsions Without Due Process
The precipitating events of the broad-based human rights appeals included the U.S. expulsion of more than 7,000 Haitians, including many families, without due process in the first two weeks, on more than 60 flights, a number that exceeded the total number of repatriation flights to Haiti in all of the past year, according to the organization Witness at the Border. On one day, Sept. 30, seven flights carried a record number of 773 Haitians in a 24-hour period. A still unconfirmed number of others — mostly families and children — have been permitted to remain in the United States for now, subject to possible removal proceedings later, amid all the uncertainties inherent in the administration’s arbitrary, still-evolving approach to these recent border influxes. All of this marks a dramatic contrast to the U.S. welcome in the last two months of 49,000 Afghan refugees thus far, in the wake of the withdrawal from that protracted conflict.
The mass expulsions of Haitians have been undertaken pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S public health code, which was activated by the Trump administration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and which the Biden administration is defending against multiple legal challenges in federal court. This policy, which essentially has weaponized the pandemic as a pretext for the exclusion of more than 900,000 migrants during the current fiscal year, makes it possible to expel migrants without due process and without any assessment of their right to seek international protection or asylum, in violation of both U.S and international law. It seems clear that the Biden administration has chosen mass expulsions of Haitians to demonstrate “toughness” and resolve at the border, as it sinks deeper into the increasingly evident contradictions between its humanitarian rhetoric and its repressive actions on the ground.
These human rights abuses embody a longstanding U.S. policy, since the Clinton administration, of “prevention through deterrence,” combined with militarization and securitization of the border, as the strategic framework for policies which do everything possible to make migrants’ journeys more perilous. This also renders migrants more vulnerable to the depredations of lucrative networks of human smuggling and trafficking controlled by the region’s most powerful drug cartels. All of this has intensified at the same time as the rhetoric of the “drug war” permeates the official rituals of U.S-Mexico relations and regional policy.
These practices also include unprecedented collusion between U.S and Mexican authorities to contain and suppress irregular migrant flows on Mexican territory and throughout Central America. This externalization of the most regressive U.S immigration policies has resulted in the greatest militarization of the isthmus since the U.S.-promoted regional wars of the 1980’s at the height of the Cold War.
As part of this collusion, Mexico has for the first time activated its own “voluntary” deportation flights to Haiti, as well as within Mexico from the northern border to its southern region and to neighboring countries in Central America. At the same time, it is seeking to contain thousands of Haitians and Central Americans in the area of Tapachula, in Chiapas state, bordering Guatemala. Mexico has also collaborated with the United States by facilitating mass expulsions by land of more than 10,000 migrants between Aug. 22 and Sept. 28 at the El Ceibo border crossing with Guatemala near Tenosique in Tabasco state. The area is a known danger zone for criminal gangs, lying at the edge of the remote Petén region, where the Zeta drug cartel has had a notable presence.
Similarly to the U.S. claim of health imperatives for its suppression of migration, López Obrador asserts that Mexico’s goal is to “protect” migrants from the dangers of their perilous journeys. He also claimed that abuses of this kind were exceptional, even though longstanding reports by independent observers and media document recurrent violations by Mexican authorities, with U.S. encouragement, as well as complicity between Mexican authorities at all levels and drug cartels that seek to terrorize and exploit migrants.
These events underline the failure of all the countries involved to meaningfully address the “root causes” of persistent forced migration across the region. Migrant flows through Mexican territory — primarily from Central America and the Caribbean but also increasingly from Africa and Asia — have greatly intensified. Mexican migration has also risen sharply during the past year, driven by persistent poverty and other inequities that have been exacerbated by the economic impact of the pandemic and its mismanagement. Mexico has received more remittances in the past year than ever before, and is more dependent on them given its continuing economic vulnerabilities.
Amid all of this, López Obrador (known as AMLO for his initials) is maneuvering to reposition Mexico in relation to the United States and within Latin America. This includes aligning Mexico explicitly against China’s increasingly competitive role in Latin America by deepening trade with the United States through the U.S.-Mexico Canada Agreement (formerly NAFTA).
AMLO’s Mixed Signals
Yet at the same time, Mexico seeks to demonstrate its ostensible support for Latin American integration along the lines of the European Union, rather than the increasingly discredited and outmoded “Pan-Americanism” of the Organization of American States. Most recently, AMLO hosted a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which excludes both the United States and Canada (unlike the OAS). This coincided with Mexico’s reaffirmation, amid its Independence Day celebrations, of solidarity with Cuba against the continuing injustices and instability resulting from U.S. sanctions, which have been long-condemned by the international community. Mexico also sought to balance its evident tilt towards the United States on trade and migration matters by taking the unprecedented step of inviting Chinese President Xi Jinping to be a special guest speaker at the CELAC summit.
Despite all these dynamics and the collusion across the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexico and Latin America as a whole, and migrants specifically, continue to be treated by the Biden administration as if they were marginal to U.S. foreign policy. Amid its distractions in Afghanistan and its triangulations related to “rivals” such as China and Russia, Mexico and Latin America are only considered pressing when increased migration inflames U.S. domestic debates over how far to go with containment at the border (or beyond), or when regional governments are perceived to pose potential threats to largely unexamined assumptions about U.S. hegemony. The U.S national security and defense establishment is still deeply trapped in these narrow ways of framing U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Latin America issues.
Mexico doesn’t help its own position by doing the bidding of the United States. Its evolving role emulates that of Turkey, Libya, Morocco, and Australia’s island neighbors in analogous contexts of “externalization” at the world’s increasingly deadly borders. In Mexico, that has included violent crackdowns by military and security forces on a series of migrant caravans during the last week in August and the first week of September, and in Guatemala and Honduras by authorities crushing similar initiatives since November 2018, as migrants organize themselves to create safer conditions for their transit amid the spiraling violence of the U.S.-promoted drug war.
Much more creative thinking is needed across the region and globally regarding the centrality of human rights — and of migrant and refugee voices — to define and shape what “development” means, from the perspective of those most impacted by such policies. They have risen up throughout the world in resistance to contemporary forms of dispossession, as called for at the recent 8th South-South Forum on Sustainability. Global recognition of the right to migrate, which the United States and Mexico are both so emphatic in denying, is a crucial first step in this direction, and towards the construction of an authentically inclusive hemispheric and global community.