Mexico president: Detaining, containing migrants is not enough

HUIXTLA, Mexico — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador expressed frustration with a strategy of containing migrants in the south on Thursday and said he would write to U.S. President Joe Biden to insist that country contribute to his favorite development projects in the region.

“We can’t just be detaining; the causes must be addressed,” López Obrador said during his daily news conference. “It’s not advisable to just root the immigration plan in containment, it’s shaky,” he said.

The president’s comments came after days of groups of 200 to 300 migrants walking out of the southern city of Tapachula. Mexico’s National Guard and immigration agents have broken up the groups and detained many, in some cases using force that drew heavy criticism.

The Biden administration has expressed a willingness to address the root causes of migration, especially from Central America. Biden placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the effort and she has visited Mexico and Guatemala to gather information.

But López Obrador has suggested the U.S. fund his tree planting and youth employment programs, without much success. On Thursday, he said that with funding, the two programs could create 330,000 jobs within six months in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The majority of the migrants leaving Tapachula in recent days are Haitian asylum seekers who have grown tired of waiting in the southern city for Mexico’s overwhelmed asylum system to process their cases. Shelter space is limited and many have been forced to live in unsanitary conditions. They want to be able to work legally in Mexico and move freely.

Haitian migrants walk along the highway in Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Sept. 2, 2021, in their journey north toward the United States. Marco Ugarte / AP

Before dawn Thursday, a group set out from the town of Huixtla in the southernmost state of Chiapas. They had left Tapachula earlier this week. Some carried small children or held them by the hand as they walked up the side of the highway, their few possessions in knapsacks or plastic bags.

Just before noon, the group was intercepted by immigration agents and hundreds of National Guard troops with large plastic riot shields who blocked the highway. Many of the migrants were detained while others fled into the brush, effectively breaking up the group.

On Wednesday, authorities descended on another group seeking shelter from a heavy rain.

Last Saturday, immigration agents were filmed kicking a migrant who was already on the ground. They were suspended this week. On Wednesday, López Obrador insisted that the government has not violated migrants’ human rights.

But his comments Thursday appeared to signal a possible break with the containment strategy Mexico had been employing at the behest of the U.S. government since the Trump administration. Just last Friday, Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said the main objective of the armed forces and National Guard is “to detain all migration” and “cover the northern border, the southern border with soldiers.”

While unlikely to cease efforts to slow migrants, Mexico could seek to pressure the Biden administration for more assistance.

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