By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
Several years ago, I remember standing near the Mexican side of the Suchiate River, which marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala.
There, in broad daylight and in full view of bored-looking Mexican police officers, people were crossing with ease. They floated freely across the relatively narrow jungle river on makeshift rafts of inner tubes.
They went back and forth for a variety of purposes, from shopping to business, or in some cases even going to school.
Some, of course, were crossing the river into Mexico as part of a long and dangerous journey north to the U.S. in pursuit of jobs and safety.
Since that time, the trickle of people has turned into a torrent. This has thrust the Suchiate River and rest of Mexico’s southern border into the spotlight as U.S. President Donald Trump rails against illegal immigration.
He’s the new Robin Hood.
As part of a bilateral deal to avoid American tariffs, Mexico recently agreed to a number of measures. These include deploying a newly formed National Guard and offering “jobs, healthcare and education” to those waiting in Mexico for asylum claims in the U.S.
The June 7 announcement of the deal by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as “AMLO,” was soon met with criticism.
Many Mexicans were critical of AMLO’s offer to give the migrants — primarily Central Americans — things that many Mexicans lack.
“He’s the new Robin Hood,” read a widely shared meme on social media. “He takes money and jobs from Mexicans to give to the Central Americans.”
As a Mexican citizen, my sentiments are two-fold.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the migrants. I’ve traveled all over Central America, and life is extremely difficult for the poor in these countries. Most Central American countries face high unemployment, extraordinary income disparity, few educational opportunities and extremely high levels of gang activity and violent crime.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to understand Mexicans’ criticism that AMLO is treating foreigners better than his own people. Mexicans also need jobs and educational opportunities.
If the government has the capacity to create those opportunities, why hasn’t it for Mexicans?
A growing wave of xenophobia
Even before the June 7 announcement, there had been a shift in attitude towards Central American migrants.
Previously, Mexicans had demonstrated a relatively tolerant and welcoming attitude towards migrants from their southern neighbors. Increasingly, though, Mexicans are resentful or even outright hostile.
“Now there are more of them, and they are staying here to wait for a Mexican visa,” a restaurant owner who once offered meals to migrants in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula told Public Radio International in December. “There is no space for them. We don’t have enough resources to support them.”
As someone who also happens to be half-German and a German citizen, I find such remarks — and there are many in Mexican media — eerily similar to recent debate in Germany.
At the beginning of the Arab Spring and the wars that spread across the Middle East and North Africa, most Germans welcomed the refugees who flowed into Europe. They viewed refugees as people who needed help, just as Mexicans used to view Central Americans. Many were greeted with flowers and cookies.
But with time, public opinion shifted, and the refugees began to be perceived as a problem. The German population no longer welcomed them. In fact, the tide of refugees fed a growing wave of xenophobia.
Mexican attitudes now largely mirror American attitudes.
In my view, the Mexican government is in many ways being hypocritical when it comes to migrants.
While it has often complained about the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrants, the Mexican government is now doing much the same thing. In deploying the yet-unproven National Guard and other security forces to deal with the migrants, it has taken a page from Washington’s playbook.
This argument has been perhaps best articulated by Mexico’s former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Jorge Castañeda.
“Every time that a Mexican official refers to the Central Americans with terms like ‘legal’ or ‘illegal,’ and of regulating them, ordering them and identifying them, they should think about whether that discourse would be acceptable if it were said by an American in relation to Mexicans,” Castañeda wrote in Mexico’s El Financiero newspaper. “It’s obvious that it’s not. But we have forgotten about that.”
In other words, Mexican attitudes toward Central Americans now largely mirror American attitudes about Mexicans. That complicates the issue for the thousands of men, women and children headed north.
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is the chief reporter for a business magazine in Dubai. Previously he worked for the Khaleej Times, a UAE newspaper; as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington; as a Reuters text reporter in New York, and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.