By Kirk Semple
TIJUANA, Mexico — After taking the oath of office, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed Mexico’s Congress on Saturday, covering all the hallmarks of his Mexico-first politics: combating poverty, social development, strengthening the rule of law and attacking corruption.
Notably absent from his speech was a specific reference to one of the most pressing matters of his young administration: the thousands of migrants who traveled through the region in caravans and are now gathered in Tijuana, at the Mexico-United States border.
Mr. López Obrador campaigned on a nationalist platform focused on helping Mexicans. But the Tijuana crisis has pushed to the forefront the challenges posed by large-scale migration through the region and the pressure it puts on Mexico’s relationships with Central America, from which the majority of migrants are from, and the United States, where most are headed.
The caravans gathered at the border have also highlighted the strain that Mexico faces as it increasingly becomes a destination for migrants, not just a throughway, with requests for asylum and other forms of relief soaring and stressing a system not prepared for the surge.
“This crisis has revealed that the systems to manage and deal with immigration, both in the United States and in Mexico, are dysfunctional and unable to face the great challenge that we have right now,” said Carlos Heredia, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.
The caravans and the pressure they have put on the region have forced Mexico — and Central America — to reckon with the issue like never before, Mr. Heredia said.
“The economic and political elites of Central America, along with Mexico’s, have been long accustomed to deal with immigration as if it were a United States problem, arguing that people want to go there, so better to not get involved,” he said. “This crisis that has already exploded is forcing Central America and Mexico to not hide beneath that worn-off excuse, and that is a good thing.”
Mr. López Obrador’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, was in Washington on Sunday and Monday to meet with Trump administration officials on, among other matters, migration. The governments have been mulling a plan that would require migrants who pass through Mexico and are seeking asylum in the United States to remain in Mexico pending the outcome of their petition, a process that can take years.
The proposed policy, part of a Trump administration strategy to ease the burden on the clogged American asylum system, would represent a radical shift from the way that the asylum system now works. Under current practices, asylum seekers who receive initial approval at the border to proceed with their petitions are allowed to remain in the United States until their cases are adjudicated.
Asylum claims in the United States have skyrocketed in recent years, adding to the burden on American immigration courts, where more than 760,000 immigration cases are pending, according to Syracuse University.
But the plan may be highly unpopular in Mexico.
“Beyond the obvious difficulties of having a saturated immigration system and an insufficient bureaucracy to deal with this, it is going to be a real tough cookie to sell in Mexico, because the question arises: What do we get in return?” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a CIDE professor.
The López Obrador administration, possibly in exchange for an agreement on the asylum deal, is hoping that the Trump administration will throw its political heft and money behind a proposal to come up with a comprehensive development plan to address the push factors, namely poverty and violence, that are driving much of the migration from Central America.
On Saturday, Mr. López Obrador, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, and the vice president of El Salvador, signed an agreement to develop such a strategy, which Mexican officials have likened to the Marshall Plan, the American-led initiative to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
The approach would “strengthen social development and combat in an integral manner the causes of the migratory phenomenon,” the Mexican government said in a statement.
But these are complicated plans that would take time to develop. In the short-term, the López Obrador administration, with its local and regional partners in the northwestern border state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located, has to deal with the pressing matter of the caravan migrants.
The first of the caravans set off from Honduras in mid-October and eventually grew to include more than 4,000 people, mainly from Central America, who traveled north by a combination of walking and hitching rides. Many had hurriedly joined the procession, betting that it was the safest and cheapest way to make it to the United States border.
The group’s size provided protection against the criminals that prey on migrants, especially in Mexico. And its profile, which rose considerably when President Trump began railing against the group, elicited an outpouring of humanitarian support along its route.
By the time the caravan had made it to Baja California, other such groups were also heading north through Central America and Mexico. In all, the caravans carried around 8,000 migrants to the border, with most ending up in Tijuana.
Local and state officials, aided by civil society groups, scrambled to accommodate them, opening a temporary migrant shelter in a sports complex that quickly filled beyond double its intended capacity.
While local and state officials openly criticized the federal government for not providing humanitarian assistance and money in the early days of the crisis, the federal migration bureaucracies responded quickly to provide the migrants with speedy access to the Mexican asylum process and other forms of relief.
In recent days, the lines have been long at the temporary center in Tijuana where state and federal agencies have been helping the migrants apply for legal status in Mexico and register for jobs.
The government has offered the migrants two options: They can apply for asylum or for a humanitarian visa, which is good for one year and is renewable. Applicants for asylum can legally work while their petitions are being processed, and the humanitarian visa also comes with a work permit.
As of a week ago, more than 600 Central Americans associated with the caravans had received humanitarian visas and more than 400 had applied for asylum in Mexico, the federal government reported.
The rate at which migrants were applying to legalize their migration status increased significantly last week after American border patrol agents used tear gas to turn back hundreds of migrants who had broken away from a protest march and rushed toward the border, officials said.
For many of the migrants, the humanitarian visa option has seemed more attractive because, unlike asylum, it allows them more flexibility in where they can live.
In addition, processing times are far faster: The authorities are promising to process applications for the visas within two weeks. Asylum petitions, on the other hand, are taking upward of six months to process, and often more than a year, officials said, even though the law stipulates a review period of up to three months.
Even before the caravans set off from Central America, Mexico’s asylum system was already under strain as an increasing number of migrants chose to seek sanctuary in the country.
Last year, more than 14,600 people applied for asylum in Mexico, an 11-fold increase over 2013, according to government statistics. And during the first eight months of this year, more than 14,544 migrants applied for asylum, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year.
The United Nations estimates that around 47,000 will apply in 2019.
Yet staffing levels and training in the nation’s migration bureaucracies have not kept pace with the demand, leading to long delays in adjudication and impeding access for many migrants, advocates contend.
The migrants of the caravan have been trying to make sense of their options. But for many, nothing holds the allure of the United States, whose magnetic pull drives so much migration in the hemisphere.
On a recent morning, Oscar López Davila, 31, a migrant from Honduras, was at the temporary government processing center exploring the pros and cons of applying for a humanitarian visa versus asylum.
The bottom line, he said, was that he had his mind set on the United States, and he was hopeful that once all the commotion surrounding the caravans had settled down, he might find a way — legal or not — across the border.
“I can be here and rent an apartment for a year, wait until everything gets calmer,” he mused. “But my dream is American.”
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