AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the U.S.-Mexican border crisis is that the problem of migrants crossing the border is not primarily about Mexican citizens crossing into the United States. This may seem like a small, point, but there is a reason that the most recent border stories were about Haitians streaming across the United States’ southern border. During much of the Trump and Obama years, the illegal migrants posing the biggest problems tended to be from Central America. For all the flaws of the Mexican state, Mexico is for the most part not in a condition where millions will flee to the United States. Mexican citizens do cross the border for economic activity and even work, but generally do so in an ordered way.
Donald Trump, for all the grief he received from the media, actually recognized that border security, was about, well, security. A vast unguarded border attracted anyone from anywhere in the world who wished to enter the United States to march across Mexico and try their luck. This was a security issue for Mexico as much as it was for the United States. During their passage through Mexico, migrant caravans are often in effect pillaging expeditions more on par with the illegal immigration the Roman Empire faced from marauding tribesmen, and as a result violence often breaks out between the caravans and locals who try to resist them.
That was why “building the wall” was only one component of the policies that managed to get the situation on the southern border under control. The Trump administration recognized that there were limits to what the United States could do alone, and so it formed partnerships with Mexico and Central American states. When it came to Mexico, President Trump adopted a carrot and stick approach with President Andreas Obrador. On the one hand, the United States made clear that the American-Mexican relationship was dependent on a secure border. On the other, the United States offered to work closely with Mexico to help control Mexico’s own southern border, which had the advantage of being more impassible and much shorter.
The result was the creation of a Wall along Mexico’s own southern border. Combined with increased enforcement, helped by cooperation between the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala, the volume of migrants was cut dramatically. Mexico deployed 12,000 additional National Guardsman, and detentions of migrants reached 31,416 in June of 2019.
This success did not sit well with everyone, including the advocacy group which provided the numbers mentioned above. The same type of accusations which the American left loves to throw at U.S. border officials and ICE were also levied at the Mexicans and Guatemalans, and the American media is often willing to believe the worst of countries they view as “backwards.” Soon came charges, including from the United Nations, that Mexico was violating the rights of asylum seekers, and that the U.S. was complicit.
Ostensibly moved by these complaints, the Biden Administration ceased cooperation with the Mexican and Guatemalan authorities. For all the talk about whether Biden implicitly or explicitly urged migrants to cross the American border, through this decision he clearly instructed the Mexican and Guatemalan governments not to stop migrants at the border between those two countries, and indicated that if they did so he would consider them to be violating the human rights of migrants. In the process, Biden, predictably moved the problem 900 miles northward to the U.S. border.
Democrats are not entirely wrong when they say that “border security” for the United States is not solely a matter of enforcement on the U.S. side. Any effective border policy has to involve cooperation on security with America’s neighbors. But rather than pursuing that cooperation, Biden has treated Mexico and Central American states with the same hostile disdain he showed for NATO allies in Afghanistan.
For much of this year, the Biden Administration has been attempting to rebuild a relationship with Mexico that has all but collapsed. The Biden Administration turned a cold shoulder to Obrador after Obrador, who always felt he had been robbed of a prior presidential election in Mexico, declined to recognize Biden’s election for several weeks after November 2020. The result was an end to cooperation on security. While Biden held a summit with Obrador in early 2021 to try and reset the relationship, within weeks the Biden Administration was calling Obrador an authoritarian and attacking Mexico’s domestic human rights record.
The latter appears to be par for course. The Trump Administration made very clear that what it wanted from Mexico and Guatemala was a healthy relationship with the United States and cooperation on key issues of importance to American citizens. Corruption and domestic political issues in Mexico and Guatemala, while certainly matters the U.S. might care about as part of a much larger relationship with those countries, was not the primary business of the American President. Trump also recognized that trying to micromanage foreign security forces was futile and a recipe for a toxic relationship. It didn’t work in Afghanistan and was likely to be both ineffective and insulting in the Americas as well.
Yet the Biden Administration has prioritized an “anti-corruption” drive in the region over any sort of economic or security cooperation. While admirable in principle, the standards of anti-corruption the Biden Administration seeks are culturally alien, and in practice the program means supporting the creation of all powerful “anti-corruption czars,” prosecutors totally independent of elected officials who are capable of prosecuting or removing politicians from office. In effect, the Biden vision of anti-corruption is to require the creation of a “super-Mueller” in every Central American country, and then to threaten sanctions and a withdrawal of support if elected officials defy or try and remove them.
These positions have inevitably become political, just as the Mueller inquiry did in the United States. In practice, this has come off not just as a form of “Yankee imperialism” beyond anything Donald Trump was accused of, but has further convinced most leaders that Biden is set on their removal from office. As such, they have no reason to cooperate with him. If they do so, especially on migration, Biden’s “anti-corruption” czars will accuse them of human rights abuses and remove them. If they do not, Biden will accuse them of corruption. It is a no-win situation, and it is hardly a surprise that local leaders have stopped even trying.
The result has been what everyone is witnessing on America’s southern border. Biden is responsible for the crisis, not merely for undermining ICE or restricting the Border Patrol. He caused the crisis by destroying America’s relations with its southern neighbors and ending the successful policy of cooperation his predecessor established.
America’s southern border has long been a security threat, but it was not a hostile border until Joe Biden took office. Biden has ensured that the border is not only unsecured, but that the United States has hostile relationships with the nations we need to make it secure. That is a novel disaster.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s degree in Iranian Studies.