MIAMI — Central Americans will continue to flee their homes and head north no matter what sort of agreements the presidents of Mexico and the United States come to.
Powerful forces — brutal violence, extreme poverty, the effects of climate change — are driving these men, women and children to leave. They are also being motivated to go north by the hope that they might live in the world’s wealthiest country. Simply put, the new wall that President Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are putting up in the form of an immigration agreement isn’t going to stop them.
Last October when I was in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, I met a man in the city of Tapachula. “I was going to die in Honduras anyway,” he told me. “I’d rather take my chances and die in another country.” He was pushing a trolley that held his 1-year-old daughter. They were traveling with a caravan of roughly 7,000 Central Americans heading north through Mexico. I also met an 11-year-old girl from Honduras. She remained silent when I asked her about the gangs back home. (You can watch video of my conversations with these immigrants here.)
It’s not hard to understand why they want to leave their homes. “Violent crime is rampant in Honduras,” says Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019. “Despite a downward trend in recent years, the murder rate remains among the highest in the world.” If your teenage son was being pressured to join a gang, or if your daughter faced threats of rape, what would you do?
El Salvador also has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, which is creating a drag on the economy. According to the World Bank, “crime and violence [in El Salvador] make doing business more expensive, negatively affect investment decisions and hinder job creation.”
As for Guatemala, in addition to the economic damage caused by the drop in international coffee prices, the nation is also struggling with the effects of climate change, including severe droughts. The headline of a recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, written from Guatemala, says it all: “Food Doesn’t Grow Here Anymore. That’s Why I Would Send My Son North.” Facing dying crops, tens of thousands of Guatemalans have left their homes to make the journey to the United States. Many more will follow.
The Mexico-Guatemala border has always been open to travelers. Last year I crossed the Suchiate River, which forms a natural border between the two countries, without anyone asking for my passport. But all that may be about to change.
The recently formed Mexican National Guard is still just an experiment and has yet to prove its effectiveness. And yet, as directed by Mr. Trump and Mr. López Obrador’s immigration deal, 6,000 of its agents will soon be deployed to the country’s southern border to make it harder for Central Americans to cross into Mexican territory.
In addition, Mexico has publicly agreed to serve as a “waiting room” for the United States. That means that thousands of Central American asylum seekers have to wait in Mexican cities, possibly for months or even years, while their claims are being processed. Mexico is doing what President Trump wants: serving as his immigration police force.
But the Mexican National Guard should be focusing on fighting crime at home, not on stopping harmless Central Americans from reaching the United States — particularly when 14,000 Mexicans have been murdered since AMLO (as President López Obrador is known) took office. Among those killed was the journalist Norma Sarabia. She was gunned down this past week outside her home in the state of Tabasco, the sixth reporter murdered in Mexico this year.
Stopping this violence should be AMLO’s No. 1 priority. Instead, Mexico is diverting huge sums of money to do President Trump’s dirty work.
I am happy, as all Mexicans are, that the United States has decided not to impose tariffs on Mexican products, which could have derailed the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. On the other hand, I am heartbroken that Mexico has given in to Mr. Trump’s demands. I’m sure that more demands will follow.
Mr. López Obrador recently said that Mexico “will stick to a no-confrontation policy” with Mr. Trump. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump isn’t abiding by the same policy. The American president is a bully, and now he knows that Mexico will do what he wants if he applies a little pressure. Mexico, after all, is Mr. Trump’s enemy of choice, and he will stick to the same strategy of attacking the country during his 2020 re-election campaign. And now he knows how to crush us.
Yet it is the Central American immigrants who are the real losers in this crisis. They have every right to feel betrayed. During the early days of the López Obrador administration, Mexico welcomed them, promising them visas and jobs. Then, without notice, the government started deporting them by the tens of thousands. Now, with this new immigration deal in place, Central Americans will have no safe passage at all.
Nothing can stop a mother and a father when their children’s lives are in danger. The AMLO-Trump deal may slow down the Central American immigration wave, but it won’t stop it. It’s simply too powerful.
I remember the day I met Oscar, a 10-year-old boy from Honduras, in the smothering heat of Tapachula. Although he was exhausted, he wouldn’t stop walking. “What do you think about the United States?” I asked. “That it is pretty,” he answered.
Mr. Trump and Mr. López Obrador will never be able to kill that sort of hope.