Before President Trump flew to McAllen, Texas, to cast the border as a hellscape of criminals frothing to illegally enter the United States, his Mexican counterpart visited the region. Last Saturday in Ciudad Juarez, Andrés Manuel López Obrador laid out his vision to create jobs, cut corporate taxes and raise the minimum wage. His hope, he said, is to deter migration with opportunity — a kind of economic net to catch migrants traveling north, as opposed to a wall.
The two leaders have very different futures in mind for the border, and both have been circling one another since López Obrador took office last month. Both have also been oddly silent to toward each other.
We know what Trump wants, and we know how he feels about Mexicans. During López Obrador’s campaign this summer, he filed a complaint against the very idea of Trump’s wall. In his book, Listen up, Trump, López Obrador writes that the president’s policies on migration go against intelligence and humanity. Asked in May by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos if he believed Trump was racist, López Obrador said, “Yes, he stokes racism.” But in the face of Trump’s most aggressive policy, the biggest change to the border in decades, López Obrador’s administration has done nothing.
A plan called “Remain in Mexico” was announced late last month. It is, essentially, a deal not to deal with the most pressing immigration problems of both countries. Since early last year, the Trump administration has pressured Mexico to become a “safe third country,” a designation that would force Central Americans to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than the United States. The agreement reached between Mexico’s Foreign Minister and top officials in the Department of Homeland security, reportedly in Houston in November, does not go so far. But it will turn Mexico into a waiting room for migrants applying for U.S. asylum, forcing them to live there for years, potentially, while judges approve their cases.
The deal’s greatest accomplishment so far, it seems, is to release pressure on what looked like an inevitable clash between Trump and López Obrador over the wall, and fundamental ideas of migration. Still, there is a long distance between their respective solutions. And walking through the middle, forcing the two leaders to react, are the Central American migrant caravans, another of which is reportedly gathering to march north this month.
“The caravans, it’s the end of the honeymoon,” J. Jesús Esquivel, a writer with Mexico’s Proceso magazine, tells Rolling Stone. “You will see.”
The word on the agreement from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry office is that no such agreement exists. “I wouldn’t characterize this as a deal,” says spokesman Roberto Velasco. The office, he says, received notice of the change December 20th, the morning of the announcement. It was forced upon them, in a completely unilateral fashion, he says. So faced with the U.S. dropping busloads of asylum seekers on their side of the border, Velasco says the Mexican administration chose the humanitarian route, accept the migrants and offer them temporary work visas.
But Mexico is in no way forced to accept citizens of another country. If López Obrador wanted, he could have refused. Asked about that, Velasco says, “What we’re doing now is analyzing this, and down the road we will see if this policy is working.” He adds, “This could face some legal challenges, so we will keep an eye on that.”
Maybe Mexico counted on it. The deal completely surprised the leader of the National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillén López. Where will the potentially tens of thousands of people live? Will they apply for asylum in the U.S. and be brought back, or will they apply in Mexico? How will U.S. attorneys contact them? At a press conference the day of the announcement, Guillén López responded to questions with near panic. “We can’t receive them,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity.”
It may be the harsh learning curve of a new administration. It may also be that López Obrador’s people believed the policy never stood a legal chance. One theory, put forward by several people who spoke with Rolling Stone for this story, is that López Obrador’s administration counted on U.S. advocacy groups miring the deal lawsuits. López Obrador has five years and 11 months left in his term though. Eventually, he will have to make a permanent decision.
The caravans present a unique problem for López Obrador. More than 50,000 people, traveling in relative obscurity, applied for asylum in the U.S., or were apprehended between ports of entry in November. This is normal. And because ghosts don’t make headlines, it has never represented a crisis for Mexico. An organized column of 4,000 souls pressing north, however, gives Trump a talking point and makes Mexico appear to have no control of its border.
When he kicked off his campaign, López Obrador told a crowd of supporters in Ciudad Juarez that “no threat, no wall, no bullying attitude from any foreign government, will ever stop us from being happy in our own fatherland.” If they sound like the words of a nationalist, of a populist, they are. Not in the sense, though, that we associate with Trump’s politics of fear or the retreat-from-the-world policy that America First symbolizes. In the White House, Trump calls López Obrador “Juan Trump.” It’s supposedly an affectionate term, in our president’s own twisted style. Maybe Trump recognizes in López Obrador similar qualities. A rambunxious orator. An outsider. A winner, given that MORENA, the party López Obrador created just four years ago, took both legislative houses, giving him the most control over the government in 20 years. But Trump is wrong if he thinks the two share much more.
The revolutionary moment in López Obrador’s life came during his time spent with the Chontal Maya, an indigenous people in his home state of Tabasco. As a young man, he headed the National Indigenous Institute, and rather than taking an office he chose to live in the community, a town without running water or electricity. Below their farmland lay the richest oil deposit in Mexico, but the people saw none of this wealth. So in his dirt-floor home, López Obrador held meetings with the disaffected, the same people he’d lead in blockades against the state-owned oil company after it’d ruined the people’s earth and water with contamination. Later, as mayor of Mexico City, he clung to these austere roots and drove a white Nissan Sentra to work each day, trading it in between his failed 2006 and 2012 presidential runs for a Volkswagen Jetta.
Poor Mexicans have a long memory of fathers traveling north. And López Obrador sees migration as human right. When his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, heeded Washington’s request to firm up the border and deported Central Americans in historic numbers, López Obrador called him a tool for doing America’s “dirty work.” Why, then, when Trump pressed for the remain-in-Mexico plan did López Obrador not fight back?
We get a hint from an interview López Obrador gave to the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson last summer. “When I mentioned the wall to him,” Anderson wrote, “he smiled scornfully and said, ‘If he goes ahead with it, we will go to the U.N. to denounce it as a human-rights violation.’ But he added that he had come to understand, from watching Trump, that it was ‘not prudent to take him on directly.’”
López Obrador’s solution to the migrant caravans is to pour $30 billion into El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the next five years. He calls it the Marshall Plan, after the investment the U.S. spent in Western Europe following World War II. If the money can fund police departments and create safe neighborhoods, if it can help employ the out of work, why would people walk 2,000 miles across Mexico, suffer hunger, blisters, the chance of being killed by gangs, the horror of the U.S. asylum system? “He who leaves his town,” López Obrador has said, “does not leave for pleasure but out of necessity.”
The problem, of course, is where does he find that money? López Obrador hopes it will come from the United States. But getting Trump to pay Mexico six times what he’s shutdown the government for seems like a non-starter. Unless López Obrador promises Trump something grand in return, like a more permanent deal to take in Central American migrants, or the “safe third” asylum plan, one much like what the U.S. and Canada have already agreed to. If that happens, López Obrador’s Marshall Plan may work. But it will take time, maybe decades. Meanwhile, Central Americans will continue to leave their homes.
Picture that future, says Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C.-based human rights group. “Let’s assume after two or three years there are a quarter of a million Central Americans trying to enter Mexico’s workforce, waiting for asylum. You have to imagine there is going to be massive blowback.” When the caravan arrived In Tijuana, Mexico put up some of the few thousand migrants in a stadium. In this future, though, Isacson offers, sprawling tent camps will rise near the border. Or the migrants will live in lean-to villages constructed of wood pallets on the expanding outskirts of cities. Sex traffickers will prey on the women. Gangs will rob the men, kidnap or and kill them like the two teenage Hondurans of the migrant caravan last month. Mexican factories in the north are short about 65,000 workers, Isacson says, which is not enough. And when those jobs disappear, how do locals react? It will be, in every sense of it, says Isacson, “A shit show.”
Sooner or later, the caravans will force the two leaders to sit down and talk. We know how Trump carries himself when making tough deals. But more importantly, how will López Obrador’s reaction shape the future of the border?