MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials are carrying out the Trump administration’s immigration agenda across widespread stretches of the border, undercutting the Mexican government’s promises to defend migrants and support their search for a better life.
The Mexican authorities are blocking groups of migrants at border towns, refusing to allow them onto international bridges to apply for asylum in the United States, intercepting unaccompanied minors before they can reach American soil, and helping to manage lists of asylum seekers on behalf of the American authorities to limit the number of people crossing the border.
Breaking with decades of asylum practice, the Mexican government has also allowed the Trump administration to send more than 120 men, women and children to Tijuana while they await decisions on their asylum applications in the United States. The program could be expanded to other border crossings as soon as next week.
Officials inside the administration of Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have called his stance on migrants a strategic decision not to anger President Trump.
He doesn’t believe he can change Mr. Trump’s mind, they contend. Furthermore, the officials say, Mr. López Obrador has not wanted to jeopardize other aspects of the deeply interconnected relationship between the two countries, ranging from elaborate regional trading arrangements to information sharing on border security, transnational crime and terrorism. So he has avoided a bruising and potentially costly public fight over the issue.
A lifelong defender of the poor, Mr. López Obrador often refers to his plans for Mexico as a grand transformation, placing his ambitions for the nation on par with those of its great leaders.
He has burnished his everyman credentials by cutting government salaries, flying coach around the country and opening the opulent presidential palace to the public. He has also vastly reduced the number of Central American migrants Mexico deports from its soil.
But not everything has transformed.
Exhibit A is the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump administration’s policy to require asylum seekers to remain on the Mexican side of the border while they await decisions on their fate. Rights groups contend that it dumps migrants in an increasingly violent Mexico and impairs their access to legal counsel and family support in the United States.
Mr. López Obrador’s administration, which came into office saying it would not cooperate with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration agenda, has gone along with it on several fronts, including accepting women and children despite earlier promises to take only adult male asylum seekers.
The Mexican government argued the policy requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico was imposed on them by the United States and they consented for humanitarian reasons.
It is also true that for Mr. López Obrador, giving in to some of Mr. Trump’s border demands and rarely saying a word against the American president in his daily press briefings carries little political cost at home.
To many Mexicans, the fate of migrants is secondary to domestic concerns about jobs, security and corruption. Mr. López Obrador retains an 80 percent approval rating, despite his government’s willingness to take back migrants applying for asylum in the United States.
“If we have to accept a handful of people back into Mexico, that’s not really a problem for us, not even politically,” said one official who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations. “What we really want to avoid is a public fight with Trump.”
But in its effort to avoid a cross-border fight, the Mexican government has chosen politics over its humanitarian ideals, critics contend.
“Mexico is continuing to play the role that the U.S. thinks it should, which is to contain the migrant influx, period,” said Melissa Vertiz Hernández, who coordinates the Working Group on Immigration Policy, a network of civil society and rights groups in Mexico.
The delicate balance with the United States has left the Mexican government without a clear, consistent immigration policy, so Mexican states and municipalities along the border are often in the position of fending for themselves under pressure from their American counterparts.
In the Mexican border city of Reynosa, for instance, almost no one is allowed to cross the bridge to apply for asylum in neighboring McAllen, Texas. They are typically blocked or apprehended by Mexican officials, forcing migrants to try their luck in other towns.
In the city of Piedras Negras, officials rounded up hundreds of migrants who arrived in a caravan in recent weeks and kept them under tight watch in a shelter with limited access to outsiders, advocates say. After a public outcry, the center was closed and many were bused to other cities and towns along the border.
The mayor of Ciudad Juárez, meanwhile, has threatened to sue a neighboring governor for shipping migrants to his town. It has become a game of political hot potato, with desperate Central Americans who are fleeing poverty and violence caught in the middle.
Elsewhere along the border, shelter officials say they manage lists of asylum applicants by name, nationality, age and documentation to assist Mexican officials who are complying with American border patrol mandates.
The Mexican government is resisting Mr. Trump in some ways, the official in Mr. López Obrador’s government insisted. Even acquiescing to the Trump administration on the Migrant Protection Protocols was done strategically, according to the official and two others briefed on the plan.
By allowing the program to start in San Diego and Tijuana, the Mexican officials argued, legal challenges to it in the United States go to the federal courts in the Northern District of California, which are generally seen as liberal. This matters at a time when many Americans are focused on how to beat Mr. Trump in the 2020 elections, in particular by leveraging the Mexican-American vote.
But many activists are far from confident that a legal challenge will put an end to the program.
“I think it’s an incredibly risky move,” said Stephanie Leutert, the director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t think you should put your country’s foreign and migratory policy in the hands of a civil society organization in another country.”
On Feb. 14, that civil society organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and several other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s policy. A decision on a temporary restraining order is expected in the coming days.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 11 asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico in recent weeks, accuses the Trump administration of violating federal and international migration and human rights laws.
Advocates contend that by forcibly sending asylum seekers to Tijuana, the Trump administration has plunged them into an unfamiliar and dangerous environment where their lives may be in jeopardy.
Killings in Tijuana have skyrocketed in recent years because of a turf war in the local drug market. In 2018, the city posted its deadliest year on record, with more than 2,500 killings.
The Trump administration first announced the new policy in December, and on Jan. 28 the head of Mexico’s migration agency said the Mexican government had imposed restrictions on its enactment.
But Mexican officials have backed down from many of those initial restrictions, including its refusal to accept women with children. Trump administration officials have said they plan to expand the program to other ports of entry along the border. The López Obrador administration has said little publicly about the changes.
In Tijuana, several of the returnees — three single men, a single woman, and two mothers each traveling with three children — described their confusion and dismay at finding themselves in Mexico once again.
“I have no idea how I’m going to survive,” said Yanira, a 34-year-old migrant from El Salvador who feared being pursued by the people she said she was fleeing in her home country.
Yanira said she left El Salvador with her three children — ages 8, 11 and 12 — after a local gang tried to recruit her middle child and threatened violence unless he agreed.
When she stepped onto Mexican soil again after being led back across the border by American officials, she broke down.
“I cried and cried,” she recalled.
Mexican officials have said they cannot provide shelter and care for the returnees, essentially leaving them to a network of community groups in Tijuana and elsewhere in the state of Baja California.
But the shelter network has been under extraordinary pressure from the almost-continual arrival of migrants traveling in caravans, who have pushed the centers beyond capacity.
Sister Salomé Limas, a social worker at the Instituto Madre Asunta migrant shelter in Tijuana, said it is currently housing about 120 women and children — in a space designed for 44.
Among the migrants are several families who are seeking asylum in the United States and were returned in recent weeks under the Trump policy.
Sister Salomé said the shelter can house the families until their first court date in the United States, in late March. After that, she is not sure.
“What’s going to happen to them?” she said. “We don’t know.”