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Trump Is Outsourcing the Migrant Crisis to Mexico

His new asylum policy exploits America's southern neighbor and threatens to create a humanitarian nightmare at the border.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In late November, a group of migrant women from Central America stood outside the Enclave Caracol community center in Tijuana, and announced the beginning of a hunger strike. They would not eat, they said in Spanish, until the United States and Mexico expedited the process for letting asylum seekers across the border.

Earlier that month, the Trump administration had tried to change not only who was eligible for asylum but also where they could apply. As part of his ongoing effort to restrict immigration from poorer countries, he announced that anyone who had crossed the border without authorization would be automatically disqualified from asylum proceedings. (Previously, anyone could apply, as long as they showed a “credible fear” of returning home.) Immigrants would now have to present themselves at an official port of entry, like San Ysidro, just across from Tijuana, or Hidalgo, near McAllen, Texas, and wait—a process that could keep them on the Mexican side of the border for several months.

When I visited Tijuana in late November, a judge had already halted Trump’s newest asylum restriction. But the city still housed an estimated 7,000 migrants, most of whom had traveled north in the Central American caravans that Trump had worked to cast as dangerous invaders. U.S. Customs and Border Protection was only taking in between 40 and 100 asylum seekers each day, leaving thousands waiting in the one main makeshift government shelter on the Mexican side of the border, where they slept outside, many without tents. To bring some semblance of order to what has become a complicated and opaque process, a small group of migrants began keeping a list to ensure that those wishing to enter the United States to request asylum did so in the order they had arrived at the border. La lista, as it is known, exists as a handwritten ledger and is passed to new caretakers as the older ones depart. It is a bizarre by-product of the Trump administration’s policies, effectively outsourcing American immigration enforcement to Mexico, and sometimes even to the migrants themselves.

This kind of outsourcing isn’t entirely new. After NAFTA was implemented in 1994, many once-sleepy border crossings became militarized checkpoints where American authorities collaborated with Mexico to fight smuggling and drug trafficking and later, after September 11, terrorism. In 2014, the Obama administration gave Mexico’s government funds to increase its immigration enforcement and deportation efforts in Chiapas, its southernmost state. (As a result, the number of people apprehended in the United States dropped 30 percent within a year.)

But the burden President Donald Trump is foisting onto Mexico today is unprecedented. In November, The Washington Post reported that Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had struck a deal with the Trump administration to make the Mexican side of the border a permanent way station for asylum seekers bound for the United States. Once the story was published, López Obrador’s administration denied it. But even so, thousands of migrants remain on the Mexican side, waiting to hear who will decide their fate. Never before has Mexico had to house so many people indefinitely. Trump, said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, is continuing to use Mexico “as an electoral and political piñata.” The country has become “a de facto filter to the U.S.” without getting anything in return.

In 2015, more than a million migrants made their way to Europe, and the backlash to their sudden arrival destabilized the politics of the entire continent. Though migrants have been arriving in Mexico for a long time, their presence has created many of the same problems. The government in Tijuana hasn’t embraced the encampment, nor have many residents. In November, hundreds of Mexicans marched to pro­test the camp’s existence, some of them shouting “Tijuana first!” and “no more migrants!” while the mayor, who has called on the caravan leaders to be prosecuted for bringing the migrants into the country, appeared wearing a red “Make Tijuana great again” baseball hat.

Conditions inside the shelters and encampments are dire. When I visited the main camp, an open-air soccer stadium packed with tents and makeshift shelters, it was raining. By midday, after hours of heavy downpour, the stadium floor had turned to mud. People packed into the Enclave Caracol, where a volunteer organization called Food Not Bombs dished up warm meals. (A few months earlier, they’d been serving 150 meals a day in Tijuana, mostly to Mexicans who’d been deported from the United States; now it’s 500, almost entirely for migrants who are heading into the United States.) Despite the weather, the months spent on the road, and the prospect of deportation, the mood was cheery: A DJ was playing pop music on the speakers; small children ran around the feet of adults who chatted over steaming heaps of pasta and cups of coffee.

The government has struggled to feed, house, and clothe the refugees. Every day, thousands of people need to eat; they need medical care, jackets, and blankets; children need diapers, and women sanitary pads. Given the limited resources and organizational capacity of Mexican authorities, groups like Food Not Bombs have stepped in, as have legal service providers and other humanitarian organizations. I spoke to a woman named Elodia, who had fled Guatemala with her two children, leaving behind an abusive husband who had burned down her family’s house after she’d tried to leave him. A volunteer had just handed her a packet of four diapers. At least it would get her through the next couple of days, she said. What she really needed, though, was a chance to plead her case for safety in the United States.

The human consequences of trapping migrants along the border are self-evident. The political ones may also be severe—for Mexico and for the United States. When Germany forced countries on Europe’s periphery to bear the responsibility for housing the majority of migrants, it did little to quell—and may even have exacerbated—xenophobic uprisings in that nation and throughout the European Union.

Later the night I was there, the standing water at the Benito Juárez stadium was ankle-deep. People had lost many of their things: the clothing, bedding, mats that they needed to stay warm and dry and alive. The government announced that it was closing the shelter and opening another one about 30 minutes away, in a former concert hall—a place with few amenities, but, at least, a roof. Hundreds packed their belongings and loaded onto government buses.

Others decided to stay. “Why would I trust the government?” a Salvadoran man told me. There were rumors that the new shelter was an old jail, that the move was a trap to lock migrants up and then ship them back home. From inside the Benito Juárez stadium, you could see the border itself, and the wall that cut like a spine across the sky.

By morning, the water had receded; all that was left was the detritus of what had been lost and ruined. Meanwhile, the hunger strikers continued to refuse food, hoping that someone would take notice and meet their relatively humble demands: to cross the border into the United States, be put into detention, and plead for the right to protection under the U.S. law.