Safe borders: Mexico looks to development aid and increased security to address the number of migrants crossing its borders

Recent years have seen the number of asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border increasing. A vast majority of people seeking asylum are doing so to escape violence in their home countries, particularly from the Northern Triangle made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but also including small numbers of nationals of African countries, such as Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

In August 2019 it was estimated that around 40,000 migrants were stationed along the US-Mexico border, of which 10,000 were in Tijuana, awaiting to be heard by US immigration judges. Despite efforts to work with US officials, such a sharp influx of people has put a strain on the local Mexican authorities, with the migrants’ presence also met with protests by locals in some Mexican cities.

Undue Burden

The start of the presidency for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, in December 2018 coincided with a renewed wave of migrant caravans seeking to enter the US. This situation was made more challenging for Mexico by the hard-line immigration policies coming from the administration of US President Donald Trump. In March 2019 the US implemented the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, that obligates asylum seekers to remain south of the border, rather than in the US, while they await the processing of their claim. That same month the Trump administration cut $700m in humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in response to the countries’ inability to stop its citizens from trying to cross into the US. At the same time, the President Trump threatened to close the US-Mexico border, which would disrupt some $612bn in trade between the two countries. Then, in July 2019, the US government followed up on its uncompromising stance by issuing a 45-day deadline for the Mexican government to stop the flow of migrants from crossing its northern border.

The MPP has been widely criticised for placing vulnerable migrants, many of whom are not Mexicans, in insecure conditions in border cities while they await the outcome of their asylum request. The border cities, which include Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, rank among some of the most dangerous cities on the globe for violence. Exacerbating the issue, some asylum seekers are from rural indigenous communities and speak Spanish only as a second language or not at all.

Mexican Response 

In a bid to move asylum seekers away from the border cities, Mexico has begun transporting people back to the southern border state of Chiapas by bus. According to the National Immigration Institute, relocating asylum seekers provides a safer alternative for those who do not want to remain on the US-Mexico border.

Under pressure to meet the 45-day deadline, the government’s migratory plan also increased security on the southern border with Guatemala, deploying newly formed Guardia Nacional (National Guard) regiments to add new entry posts and moving existing ones. The Guardia Nacional is a hybrid military and police force created by AMLO in March 2019 as part of the government’s strategy to quell the violence that has plagued Mexico since 2006. Although the increased security presence has reportedly led migrant traffickers to seek new routes into Mexico, the government announced in July 2019 that it had reduced the flow of asylum seekers heading towards the US border by more than 36%.

As the administration of President Trump has focused mainly on hard-line approaches and law enforcement to stop the flow at the border, President López Obrador has promoted addressing the underlying factors in Central American countries, such as poverty, climate change, unemployment, crime and violence, that drive migrants to leave their homes in the first place. In July 2019 the Mexican government pledged to give $90m per year as part of a Central American development initiative to create 60,000 jobs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The Mexican government also held meetings with the Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran heads of state to coordinate efforts to reduce the number of migrants looking to cross its borders. This comes as Mexico struggles to accommodate the estimated 600,000 migrants that entered into Mexico in FY 2018/19 on their way to the US border.


Adding another significant hurdle for asylum seekers, in September 2019 the US Supreme Court ruled that the US could implement the so-called “safe third country agreement”, under which Central American migrants would no longer be permitted to apply for asylum in the US. Instead, applicants would be required to seek protection in the country where they first land.

Mexico has long opposed the US policy, as it would place an undue burden on the country’s asylum system, which is already under significant pressure. The policy stipulates that migrants who are not residents of either the US or Canada would not be able to be apply for asylum at Mexico’s US borders. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, made a surprise public statement disagreeing with the US Supreme Court ruling, calling it “astonishing”. In a further statement to international media, the foreign minister also made it clear that the ruling would have a significant impact and said that Mexico would never implement such a policy.

Return Migrants 

At the same time, the Trump administration toughened up its stance on undocumented immigrants already settled in the US, resulting in an increasingly notable presence of return migrants to Mexico. Those who were born in Mexico but grew up in the US may hold Mexican citizenship, even though they grew up in the US and identify culturally and linguistically as Americans. This recent spike in return migration was largely a result of the change of rules from the Trump administration on former President Barack Obama’s flagship Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which protected up to 800,000 unauthorised migrants from deportation so long as they arrived to the US when they were children. As DACA protections have been rolled back since 2017, there has been a steady increase in return migration from the US to Mexico.

In terms of skills, the US’ loss is turning out to be Mexico’s gain. Many of these return migrants, known collectively as “Generation 1.5” are young, highly educated and often bilingual. Many have been employed in call centres, thanks to their native-level English-speaking abilities and understanding of US customer demands. Although not all return migrants are deported from the US, the Trump administration’s tough immigration policy has significantly increased the amount of migrants looking to return to Mexico and find work opportunities.

Getting to Work

In terms of institutional support, there was no official programme to reintegrate return migrants into Mexico’s economy and society until relatively recently. The most prominent government-sponsored reintegration programme Somos Mexicanos (We are Mexicans) was set up in 2014. Among other measures, it has also provided return migrants with access to an online database to match them with potential employees.

On the whole, however, government-support for the demographic has been limited. As a result, there are a number of NGO and private sector start-ups working with return migrants (see Entrepreneurship + R&D chapter). One such organisation is HolaCode, which offers five-month software development and coding bootcamps to returnees, deportees and refugees, training them to become software engineers. It is backed by Hack Reactor, a software engineering coding education programme in San Francisco. The potential benefit of adding highly educated, bilingual migrants to the workforce is substantial, given that the biggest challenge for the ICT sector has been access to quality human capital.

“Mexico’s tech sector is growing fast, but the talent needed to support its growth is not keeping pace. Therefore, it is among the returnee community, voluntarily or not, that we have been finding outstanding untapped talent, specifically for the tech sector,” Marcela Torres, CEO of HolaCode, told OBG. “Beyond being outstanding software engineers, we are starting to see a very interesting pattern among our alumni, as the majority of them are natural entrepreneurs and don’t want to work for a tech company most of their lives. They want to learn from them and build their own tech companies.”

Naturally, the reintegration process is far from simple, in both cultural and bureaucratic terms. The processes of obtaining certifications and converting US education qualifications is slowed by excessive red tape. However, the potential offered by return migrants is largely expected to benefit Mexico.