Dolores hardly recognizes the makeshift camp in northern Mexico where she settled six months ago. In its early days, there were far fewer families, and they all huddled under the roof of a pergola that was situated in the center of Plaza de la República, the main square in the town of Reynosa. Back then, local residents still rambled the plaza’s grounds, occasionally pausing at a brass statue of an eagle perched on a prickly pear, with a rattlesnake dangling from its beak—Mexico’s coat of arms. Little by little, the sight of white vans carrying people without shoelaces became more common. They were migrants from Central American countries, Haiti, and Mexico itself, many of whom, like Dolores, had been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in South Texas and expelled under Title 42. The provision is an obscure public-health order that the Trump Administration put in place at the outset of the pandemic. The move was widely seen as an effort by the Administration to achieve its long-running goal of shutting the border. Joe Biden, to the surprise of immigration advocates, kept the order in place. Meanwhile, the population of the makeshift camp in Reynosa has swelled to close to three thousand.
Today, Plaza de la República is blanketed with tents, gray and navy tarps from which families hang their clothes to dry. Newcomers sleep on the bare ground; all the makeshift shelters have been claimed by the people living there permanently, many of whom are children. On a recent Friday, Dolores, a large, careworn woman of fifty, lay in a bed built from used rods and wooden planks. She explained why she left El Salvador with her teen-age daughter, Rosalba, last summer. Early last year, members of a local gang had shown up at a small shop she owned, where she sold chickens, fireworks, and local specialties, demanding protection money. First, they said that a couple of chickens would do. Eventually, Dolores recalled, they demanded a hundred and fifty dollars a month, then five hundred. “I found myself working for them, and I did not want that,” she said.
To walk through the camp in Reynosa is to be confronted with a failure of regional scope, from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City and capitals across Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. Repeated attempts by the U.S. and Mexican governments, in particular, to stem the flow of migrants northward have failed. For many decades, migration from Mexico, and across Mexico to the United States, never ceased—more than fifteen million Mexicans settled north, becoming the largest immigrant group in the nation. The numbers did decline at two recent junctures: after the Great Recession and the election of Donald Trump. When Trump took office, in 2017, he became fixated on the idea that Mexico could stem illegal crossings at the southern border, if the country wanted to. His Administration wanted a commitment from the Mexican government to let migrants, who were seeking asylum in the United States, wait for their cases south of the border.
After a series of escalating threats from Trump that included closing the border, Mexico’s newly sworn-in President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, acceded to what became known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which took effect in 2019. It didn’t take long for Trump, who was discontented with the progress, to renew his threat to close the border and issue one more ultimatum: to levy a five-per-cent tariff on all Mexican goods. In response, López Obrador deployed National Guard troops throughout the country’s south, to prevent migrants from crossing Central America into Mexico. “There is a sin of origin in how Mexico responded to Trump’s threats,” Arturo Sarukhán, who served as Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, said. “López Obrador bent the knee, and the U.S. found an easy way out. At the end of the day, they’re basically subcontracting U.S. immigration law and policy to a third country, that is Mexico.”
As many predicted, the policy failed to address the crime, poverty, and instability across the region that continue to fuel migration toward the U.S. It also relied on the belief that tough enforcement measures would prompt migrants like Dolores to remain in their countries. “The lesson that was not learned, that still has not been learned in U.S. migration policy—and which has now been injected into the U.S.-Mexico immigration agenda—is that you can’t enforce your way out of a migration crisis. Period,” Sarukhán said. “There’s nothing that you can do in terms of enforcement that will solve the structural causes that have led to the historic, unprecedented levels of people on the move, up and down the Americas, that we have today.”
One of President Biden’s promises as a candidate was to suspend Remain in Mexico—something he did after taking office. By then, more than seventy thousand people had been forced to wait south of the border for their U.S. court proceedings. They ended up in squalid collections of makeshift tents, such as those in Reynosa, where they were robbed, tortured, raped, and kidnapped. When Biden moved to permanently end the Remain in Mexico policy, the Republican-controlled states of Missouri and Texas filed a lawsuit to prevent the Administration from doing so. In August, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority sided with the two states.
The Biden Administration said it remained committed to ending the program. One step that could have aided the Administration would have been if Mexico did not renew its support for the program. But Mexico’s President allowed the program to resume in December. “It’s not necessarily the case that the Mexican government opposes Remain in Mexico,” a senior official who served in the Biden Administration said. “One of the things that they had consistently told us—when they saw that Biden had won, and obviously saw that there was likely going to be a reversal of some, if not many, of the policies—was, ‘Go slow.’ Because they feared what ultimately ended up happening, which was a large rush of people through their country to reach the United States.”
Taken together, the stories of migrants in Reynosa speak to the many broken promises of Latin America’s leaders. There was a woman from Honduras, whose mother and brothers were murdered back home: “You submit a complaint, and you don’t wake up alive the next day.” A man from Haiti, who braved the Darién Gap, a forbidding rain forest that connects South and Central America, only to be stuck in Mexico: “We made it alive. Many haven’t.” A woman from Guatemala, whose son was stabbed while she was in Reynosa with her youngest daughter: “I couldn’t afford to bring him along with us.” But there is also an underlying sense of inertia, fuelled by a policy vacuum. “What we’re seeing is a grave regional social need to migrate and seek refuge colliding with the policies of Mexico and the United States,” Tonatiuh Guillén López, the former head of the National Migration Institute who resigned after López Obrador pledged to deploy troops to curb migration flows, said. “In that collision, human traffickers emerge as the big winners.”