Six-Month AP Investigation of Migrant-Smuggling Business in Mexico Reveals Potency of Trump Policies

A holiday-season gift for the White House

By Todd Bensman on December 23, 2019

A far-ranging Associated Press (AP) field investigation inside Mexico — described as "six months of interviews ... with migrants and smugglers along principal migration routes in Mexico and Central America" — looks to be one of the American media's most penetrating explorations of President Donald Trump's immigration policy yet.

The headline "What crackdown? Migrant smuggling business adapts, thrives" amounts to a political feint, but does nothing to distract from the gift of content in the story beneath.

For the White House, the Trump campaign, and anyone who wanted an end to mass illegal immigration of Central Americans over the southern border, the AP story is a holiday season gift. It provides a granular view of exactly how and why the president's efforts to stymie a mass migration of Central American family units despite an uncooperative Congress — a combination of foreign diplomatic initiatives and innovative deterrence policies — so profoundly blunted the wave of illegal immigrants as it was cresting at nearly one million by the end of 2019.

For starters, the AP investigation definitively attributes "new Trump administration policies" and the resulting "dramatic policy changes on both sides of the border" with having "reduced the number of migrants attempting the journey." (Emphasis added.)

This kind of policy-motivation impact correlation is of rare and often hard-to-find value as feedback in any policy-making loop. The AP was able to achieve this motivation-feedback feat with old-fashioned gum-shoe interviews of migrants regarding how the new Trump policies increased the cost-to-benefit calculus in the minds of would-be migrants, causing huge numbers of them to opt for staying home. The AP reporters charted the adaptations that Trump's policies forced on the human smugglers, too, which contributed perhaps most of all to deterring Central Americans from bothering to try.

In short, the AP investigation showed that Trump's diplomacy and policies created their intended high-consequence deterrence by sharply increasing smuggling fees and the probability that those higher smuggling fees would be lost to apprehension and returns to home countries by either Mexico or the United States.

The AP story seems to take some delight in reminding readers that cartel-linked smugglers are still making money, albeit from smaller numbers of migrants, by increasing their fees or turning to drug smuggling.

But who cares about that when the escalating smuggling fees, and growing necessity for migrants to pay them at higher risk of losing their money for nothing, contributed to what so far is looking like an end to the mass migration crisis that began in 2018?

The dramatic success in reducing Central American migration from 140,000 in May to about 40,000 in November was attributed to three main Trump initiatives: a demand that Mexico deploy its new national guard to its southern border with Guatemala to block and return Central American migrants; the push-back policy known as "Remain in Mexico", wherein migrants would be denied the chance to anchor illegally inside the United States while awaiting asylum claims they would almost all eventually lose; and the "Safe Third Nation" policy, whereby migrants who hadn't first applied for asylum in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador would be denied the chance to apply for U.S. asylum.

"The impact has been swift," the AP reported of the Trump policies, citing the decline of migration.

Some key takeaways from the AP story:

  • Because of intense security at all borders, Central Americans no longer go on their own or in free-flowing "caravans"; to get around the Mexican troops, they now must hire human smugglers. Those human smugglers, due to the increased risk and demand for services, have been forced to significantly hike their fees to more than $10,000 for "a care-free" journey. Not very many Central Americans can afford those fees, especially when seeing those willing to gamble the money get caught, turned back, ripped off, and lose their fees. None of that naturally sits well with anyone contemplating a trip to the U.S. border these days.
  • Corruption in Mexico and Guatemala, as much as anything, is contributing to breaking the mass-migration crisis. As troops and police fan out along borders and routes, many demand bribes to look the other way, dramatically increasing those deterring smuggling costs. "The National Guard has raised prices," the AP quotes one smuggler saying.
  • The massive U.S. return of 55,000 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico under the "Remain in Mexico" asylum policy has messaged "long odds" to those still downstream of making it across to live illegally. "There's a lot of Border Patrol at the border, and there's no one here who will guarantee the trip," the AP reported one Honduran migrant saying in raising the $9,000 smuggling fee demanded. Another Honduran returned to Mexico five months ago hasn't been able to raise the $5,000 smuggling fee and "contemplated heading back to Honduras. But he'd have to pay an exit fee for that too."

While the AP story makes sure to repeatedly mention how Trump is enriching criminal groups in Mexico, the money is coming in from a declining number of migrants. That should be received as joyful holiday music to the ears of those who wanted an end to the mass migration of Central Americans.