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What Can Mexico Really Do About Migration?

Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador to Mexico, joins Deep Dish to discuss what can realistically be done about migrants.
People wait in line at the US-Mexico border. Play Podcast

This week President Donald Trump touted a new agreement with Mexico to stem the flow of migrants into the United States. But Mexican officials claimed both sides were still evaluating the situation. Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador to Mexico, joins Deep Dish to discuss what can realistically be done about migrants.

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about the US-Mexico relationship, focusing on migration and trade. A lot has happened and not happened in recent days between the United States and Mexico. On the migration and trade front, President Trump has threatened Mexico with increasing tariffs if they did not do more to stem the flow of migrants to the US, and then called off those tariffs touting a new deal with Mexico, including a secret agreement. Reports have said there's little new in this agreement with Mexico, most of which had been agreed to months ago, and Mexican officials have denied that there was a secret agreement. Further on the trade front, the replacement for NAFTA, the USMCA, has been agreed to by trade negotiators, but not yet by the legislators of each country. To help us sort out what's going on and what it all means. I'm joined by Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, who served as US ambassador in Mexico from 2011 to 2015. He was a career foreign service officer who also served as US ambassador to Argentina, deputy ambassador in Afghanistan and Assistant Secretary of State for economic and business affairs. He is currently a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. Welcome, Tony. It's great to have you on Deep Dish.

Earl Anthony Wayne: It's great to be with you.

Brian Hanson: So I want to start by focusing on the immigration side of this. We're going to get to the trade and the link between trade and migration, but can you help us understand. There is this flow, we know there's this flow of migrants who have come primarily from Central American countries through Mexico into the United States. What has Mexico been doing? What has their policy been up to now on dealing with this flow of migrants?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Well, I think it is important to know that migrants are coming in family units in numbers that we have not seen before, and there are a lot of reasons for this. Some have to do, of course, with their own country that's pushing them out, but then also sort of pull messages that they're hearing from Mexico and the United States. For example, in Mexico, when Mexico's new president Lopez Obrador was elected and then came to office on December 1st, he emphasized that he was going to respect the human rights of migrants and help care for them and that he wants to take a different tact than his predecessors had taken. This was no doubt seen by many people in Central America, well, okay, now Mexico will be more welcoming to us than they were before. And at the same time they were hearing from the United States that the US was going to close the border, and those who were helping facilitate or smuggling people north were saying you better go now because the US is going to close their borders, so you better get up there and get across that before they change their laws. That combination seems to have really inspired tens of thousands of these family units to head northward. When that happened, the new government of Mexico, again I say only came to office on December 1st, was just unable to handle it there, and there were a couple of things going on here. One, these people were mostly new to government. Two, they discovered that their immigration services and their refugee agencies were very poorly staffed, had very limited capacity, and in the case of the immigration agencies, there were a lot of corrupt officers there who'd been taking payments to let people go through in any case. And so they rapidly discovered that they couldn't manage all these flows coming, and especially the increased flows that were happening. They just weren't able to do it. And that's not only at their southern border with Guatemala, but it was through as people traveled up through Mexico. Then when they got to the north, they had extremely limited capacities, and that's not just in simple immigration officers. It includes places to house migrants to support them, to take care of them. So they were just very much surprised and overwhelmed by this and overwhelmed by the numbers that were coming. That was unexpected. Then, of course, the same thing was happening at the US border. US immigration and customs officials were overwhelmed. They didn't have enough resources and they weren't able to process all these people, especially because there is a great shortage of adjudication officials for people claiming asylum.

Brian Hanson: So it's interesting, I mean I think you point out some good dynamics here, important dynamics of things that happened in the US and Mexico, which has spurred and contributed to the increase of these flows, and the struggles by both countries to try to manage these flows. I want to focus a little more on Mexico in terms of the linking to the limitations that you pointed out. How is the government changing their approach and what's realistic to expect given those limitations that you talked about before, if Mexico wanted to do everything it could on its own to stem immigration, stem migration, this flow of migrants, what would that be and how much can be done? How long would it take to put into place?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Well, I think that they're aiming to have significant results within 45 days. That's the goal. So part of that is to send more semi-police forces. This is this new National Guard that they're creating to the southern border and the southern part of the country, and have sort of lines of, you might call it defense up to there, the isthmus, which is the narrowest part of Mexico as you head up, and start intercepting these groups and say, Would you like to apply for asylum and residence here? And if they say no, then they will send a lot of them back because they'll say, Well, why are you here and doing this? I don't know if they'll send all of them. We'll have to see what happens in practice. But they're going to have teams of these National Guard with immigration officials, sometimes with the officials from the justice ministry if there are smugglers involved. So the goal is to significantly reduce the numbers that are coming through and headed north, and we'll just have to see how good they can be. In the previous administration under Pena Nieto, they sent something like 400,000 migrants back to their home countries over the 2014, 2015, 2016 period. So they were sending about 100,000 a year back, which was that the previous first surged with all these unaccompanied young people started showing up in our border. So, it is possible to do this, but how quickly we'll see and it's not going to be everybody. I mean, that's going to take really developing capacities and building facilities that is way beyond what the Mexicans have right now. Brian Hanson: What's your sense of what's realistic to expect in 45 days? I know in this country, as you pointed out, we've had our own challenges trying to build both our own efforts at the border as well as how to manage the numbers that are coming through Mexico. Of course, as a country that's not as wealthy as the United States, it doesn't have as many resources, and some of the other limitations you talked about earlier. What can we expect? What does a best case scenario look like for this?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Well, in the last two months, what we saw was a giant surge, particularly, with 109,000 or so arriving at our border in April and 140,000, 145,000 arriving in May. So if you could get back down to the previous sub 100,000 numbers, which I think you could, that would be a big improvement. But honestly, I don't know how many they can stop and turn around, and how many will just stop coming when they see these more serious weeding out efforts in the south of Mexico. But I think you could see a significant change. Then up at the north, what was agreed was that the Mexicans would be willing to accept people back to await US asylum decisions who got to the border, who made an asylum claim, and then will come back and wait in Mexico. But there, there's also a burden on the United States to rapidly adjudicate these cases. One of the reasons the Mexicans were hesitant to do this to begin with was they saw the backlog of a couple of years or more for these cases being judged, and they're saying this is a tremendous burden on us. If you guys can't make quick decisions in the US whether these people are really legitimate, have legitimate claims or not. So the US has to also step up its ability and in the speed with which it treats people arriving at the border and judges their claims. As a number of newspaper articles and others have reported, a very high percentage of people once they get their hearing are rejected. Some, as I've read, say up to 90 percent of the cases, there's just, nope, this is not valid. But that would make a big difference also, also sending messages back to Central America, gee, you know, nine out of every 10 of us get turned around. Maybe we shouldn't go if we don't think we have a really good case. Brian Hanson: Yeah, and one of the arguments the Trump administration has made is that if people aren't successful in reaching the United States, they get stopped in Mexico, that that would act as a deterrent of people trying to come up as well. Do you think picking up, increasing the pace at which we can process those refugee claims will take us time as well. So I guess two questions. One is to what extent is the US government taking steps to do that? And second, even in that process, do you think there's a deterrent effect of having these folks seeking asylum held up in Mexico and not able to get into the United States?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Yes, I think all of these things can help create a deterrent effect, but the US actually has to show that it's doing faster adjudication. I haven't seen that happen yet. Part of that is waiting on Congress and the administration, who have been deadlocked over so many of these issues for so long, need to get to some agreement on both the humanitarian aspects of housing and taking care of the people who are already here in being held, and secondly, making those adjudication decisions quickly. Part of it is tied up in the courts. It's also true that we need to note that US courts are considering this policy that would have people go back to Mexico and wait there and it's possible the courts could throw it out and say, no, that doesn't fit US law, which then puts the whole burden back on Congress and the administration to actually make some legal reforms. We'll just have to watch that and see. But there's no question that if you get stronger deterrent actions at the border, stronger deterrent actions throughout Mexico, that will be very positive for helping control these large flows. Now, there are certain individuals who have very serious claims. They're threatened by criminal groups, they're threatened by other sources of unhappiness with their lives. And those needs, those do need to be considered. But a lot of these people very honestly are leaving because their local situation is for them unbearable and they are looking for something different. Some of that is, as we've seen, the reports that the highland coffee growing has become very hard to do, very hard to make a living in Guatemala because of a combination of drought and climate change and disease and coffee prices and all of that. So that sends a lot of people leaving. Then the other part, which the Mexicans have urged us repeatedly to pay attention to is, okay, well, let's try and create some jobs both in southern Mexico and in these countries through investment, through programs that encourage economic activity. People will stay and will work with you on that. That's also part of the plan. We have to remember this medium and longer term effort, and that requires investment from the United States, as does if we really want Mexico and Guatemala and others to be better on the enforcement side, we should be willing to provide some funds and some training to help these people get better. I think it's important to remember that the government of Mexico is going through a massive austerity program. They're trying to save money in order to introduce more social reforms in their country for education, to fight crime, to do other things, and they have this massive criminal problem with violence and homicides that have been skyrocketing for the last several years. Since 2014, it's been headed upwards, and one of the things that the new president AMLO got elected on was a promise he was going to control this violence.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that I think comes through in your analysis is this is a multidimensional problem, and enforcement and addressing the flows directly coming up requires not only border action, but also requires work in those societies as you say, to reduce the incentive that people have to leave. I want to switch over to the linkage of trade policy to demanding more action from Mexico on immigration. You've written that this is a really bad policy approach and idea. What's your concern?

Earl Anthony Wayne: My concern is that over the last, with Mexico since the early 1990s, but really for decades, the United States has been very successful in treating trade related problems in that same sphere, using tools in that area if there are problems and disagreements, and not mixing them with national security issues, and dealing with national security issues with other tools that we have available, not trade tariffs, but sometimes trade controls, but other kind of steps as well as negotiations, of course, in both cases that this is a major example of the president breaking down that practice, which has really created a tremendous amount of integration and goodwill across North America, and calls into question I think in the minds of our neighbors and other trade partners, gee, does this mean this is another sign that even if we signed a trade agreement with the United States, they may violate that agreement in something they call national security, impose great costs on us as well as surprisingly great costs on themselves?

Brian Hanson: Yeah, so say more about that. What do you see as the costs that are implied?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Well, tariffs are essentially taxes on both the buyers and the sellers. The people that are going to pay more for these goods are the consumers in the United States, and in the case of Mexico, since 50 percent of our trade with Mexico is in intermediate goods, that is goods that go into the final production of another product. You have all sorts of US companies that are providing inputs into Mexico. Those goods when they come back would be taxed, but you're really taxing 30 percent, 40 percent of those US goods again when they come back into the United States. Then we have such integrated production chains. That's especially, for example, in the auto sector, some goods we'll cross the border several times, two, three, four, five times. And so they would be taxed every time with a new tariff every time they came in, so the tariff would actually be more than a 5 percent or 10 percent or whatever you were at that period of time. So one, US producers would lose and then people would pass that on to consumers. For example, one of the things that's being talked about is President Trump has threatened to put higher tariffs on all autos coming into the United States. What that would mean for consumers of the autos that we put together with Mexico, that you could be paying, each consumer could be paying $1,000 to $4,000 more for a car, depending on the level of the tariffs that are put in place. So that is just a direct cost to people. Then if you look at fresh fruits and vegetables, we get most of our winter fruits and vegetables from Mexico. So that would cost everybody more when they're coming in. So these are not just something that you're punishing the other country. You are punishing yourself, and people need to realize that and say is this the best way to get to a solution? It doesn't mean you don't need to get to a solution to the problem. You do, but is this really the best way to do it?

Brian Hanson: And another point that you make in addition to that economic argument is that this is happening in the context, this threat of trade sanctions is happening in the context on the heels of renegotiating NAFTA and the creation of the new agreement, the USMCA, which while it has been negotiated, is still needing to be approved in all three countries, the US, Mexico, and Canada. What does this action do to the prospects for USMCA in Mexico as well as in the United States?

Earl Anthony Wayne: Well, first I think it is very important to understand that NAFTA really has benefited all three countries, despite the rhetoric. In the United States, when NAFTA was negotiated, we had 700,000 jobs tied to trade with Mexico. Today, we have five million jobs tied to trade, supported by trade with Mexico. That's a seven time increase in the number of US jobs that are tied to it. So while some jobs have indeed moved to Mexico, others have been created, other opportunities, and the net benefit is really clear positive for all three countries, despite what certain politicians have said. Secondly, this negotiation that took place, basically modernized NAFTA. So now all the stuff that happens on the Internet is covered, which it wasn't before. It takes the labor rights section and moves it into the treaty, which it was not there before. The same thing for the environment. So it does a lot of good things. It also changes some of the rules for how you build vehicles in North America. Then what it does, it promises at least 16 years of certain, certainty on what those rules are going to be. And as you know, as somebody who's watched businesses, businesses want that certainty because they can then make investment decisions and they can make production decisions and they can keep hiring new people. Without that, as we've been experiencing, people, they question, should I really build that? Should I hire these 25 more people or not? So, the value of getting this new agreement, which in the United States, we use the term USMCA, the US-Mexico-Canada agreement, is that it would provide that certainty. And what we face is a very limited time to work out an agreement between the administration and Congress to get this passed, because as soon as we really get into presidential election season, nobody's going to vote for this. So that means it would be put off until the year after the presidential election, so 2021. That's a long delay, a long time of an additional uncertainty for people. So there's a lot of benefit in getting this done quickly. But what's happened with this recent tumult over immigration on tariffs is that it really has taken the focus off trying to forge that understanding between the administration and Congress. Similarly, Canada has elections this fall, and then in Mexico you have the possibility of upset over this clash. It's pretty clear in the polls that have been taken that Mexicans are very offended by what the United States has done here. Not saying they don't have any responsibility, but by the idea of threatening all of their livelihoods, people are really looking twice and positive views of the United States have sunken significantly.

Brian Hanson: I want to thank you for in some of your writings using Chicago Council data and reports about the public opinion in Mexico. And of course when the public opinion for something falls, attitudes toward the US change, that makes it politically more difficult to put something through like this. As we close this discussion, I want to ask, what should our listeners pay attention to as these issues play out both on the migration front and on the trade front? The headlines will continue to come, but what is most important for people to pay attention to, to understand how things are unfolding and the direction they're going?

Earl Anthony Wayne: On the migration front, I think it is important to realize that everybody is contributing to the challenges and everybody, meaning the United States, Mexico, and Central America, all need to contribute to the solutions. While the numbers coming northward are something to pay attention to, we also need to assure that we're willing to play our part, investing at our own border, investing in supporting the capacities and the medium and longer term solutions to those push factors out of Central America. So they should look more broadly than just some of the statements that we're being invaded. We have to look at why and how do you control that? Secondly, very much they need to look at what impact is this going to have on my jobs, on my prices, on the broader economy in the United States, and let's not endanger our wellbeing. If there are other good ways to solve these problems, which I think there are. I think diplomacy and hard work together can make a lot of differences. Sometimes we all need to get the attention that this is important, but you don't want to endanger the wellbeing of everybody in the process.

Brian Hanson: And on the trade front?

Earl Anthony Wayne: On the trade front, I hope we'll get to see re-engagement on USMCA between the administration and Congress. It's a very short window now. There's a little time before Congress goes on their summer break, and then they'll have to work really hard in the fall. They'll have to have agreements if they're going to get this done this year, and if not, we will have missed that opportunity I think, which will be bad for American farmers, American workers, and American businesses. I should add, farmers have been suffering particularly from this because Mexico has been their number three export market, Canada number one, and China number two. So they're in a really tough position with the trade hits. They've gotten retaliatory tariffs split against them, from our trading partner because of steel and aluminum tariffs that we put in place, and if we get into another tit for tat that will harm them. As we know, they've been hit by the weather very severely also. So I think all these things suggest that we really need to double down on, one, improving the migration, and two, getting the trade situation set, taking us forward for the next decade plus with the new trade agreement.

Brian Hanson: Ambassador Tony Wayne of the Wilson Center and also former US ambassador to Mexico. I want to thank you for being on Deep Dish. I think you've done a fabulous job of laying out the issues, what is at stake and how we can make progress on both these issues. Thanks so much for being here.

Earl Anthony Wayne: It's been a great pleasure to be with you on Deep Dish and thanks for all the great work you guys are doing at the Council.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you liked the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs, wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would like today's episode, please take a moment to tap the share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs where you can ask our guests follow up questions about anything you heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Our audio engineer for this episode is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

About the Experts
Earl Anthony Wayne
Former US Ambassador to Mexico
Earl Anthony Wayne is the former Ambassador to Argentina and Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan. He served nearly four years as Ambassador to Mexico. He was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in August, 2011.
Brian Hanson
Former Vice President, Studies
Brian Hanson headshot
Brian Hanson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He managed the Council's research operations and hosted the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
Brian Hanson headshot