On Sunday, Mexico's presidential candidates participated in the second of three presidential debates. The debate, titled "Mexico in the World", covered three issues: foreign trade, investment in border security and the battle against transnational crime, and migration.
The debate took place in Tijuana with the participation of the following candidates: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), José Antonio Meade, Ricardo Anaya, and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón (also known as El Bronco). Recent polls show AMLO, the leftist candidate, as the front-runner, followed by the more right-leaning Anaya. Meade, from the ruling party, is in third place. The independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez Calderon is at the bottom of the polls.
Below are some of the questions asked and the responses given by the four candidates, as they relate to migration issues.
The first grouping of questions touched on the NAFTA negotiations and relevant migration issues.
On the subject, AMLO responded that the best foreign policy is domestic policy. He noted the need to strengthen the Mexican economy to ensure that there are jobs in Mexico so people do not have to emigrate. Later in the debate, a returned Mexican migrant highlighted in his question the disparities between salaries in the United States and Mexico. In response, the leftist candidate emphasized the need for an agreement that drives Mexican salaries up and claimed his government would increase the minimum wage.
Candidates Meade and Anaya reiterated that the issue for Mexican migrants and returnees is not just one of needing jobs, but also decent wages. Therefore, both candidates said they would increase the minimum wage.
In contrast, El Bronco proposed that the money appropriated for social programs be used to boost salaries. In his opinion, welfare programs are contradictory to the working spirit of Mexican migrants. He emphasized that Mexicans leave for the United States to work.
Migration Through Mexico
The candidates were first asked, "How do you intend to help migrants who cross Mexico (Africans, Haitians, Central Americans) so that then we can have the moral authority to ask for decent treatment of Mexicans residing in the United States?" Later the candidates were asked, "Should [Mexico's] southern border be the first line of defense for North America or a point of entry for refugees?" Along same the lines, the following question was raised: "The asylum petition process is very complicated in Mexico, would you consider changing the system, organize it so that Mexico [absorbs] more Central American migrants?"
El Bronco suggested that Mexico needs to invest in the southern state of Chiapas and convert it into the California of Mexico. He added that by creating employment opportunities and better conditions in the southern region, Mexico could "contain migration in a humane manner" and "without aggression".
Anaya claimed Mexico needs to respect Central American migrants if they expect the United States to do the same. Therefore, Mexico should cooperate with Central American governments and not invest in an "absurd wall" as President Trump intends to do. Moreover, he indicated that under an Anaya presidency, Central Americans and other migrants would be received with open arms. He provided the integration of Haitian migrants into Tijuana as an example. Anya also argued that Mexico needs to adjust its asylum system, because currently the laws are very rigid and make it difficult for migrants to receive protection.
Meade, the ruling party candidate, acknowledged that Central American migrants face many abuses in their transit through Mexico. As such, his government would invest in providing them better services and attention upon their arrival to the country. Meade also echoed El Bronco, suggesting that many of these migrants could be absorbed into the southern region of Mexico through investment in the area and the provision of jobs. However, on the issue of asylum seekers, Meade took a more cautionary approach, unlike Anaya. Recognizing that Mexico could do better, candidate Meade also expressed security concerns:
Much of this migration involves organized crime ... money laundering, involves trafficking, implies abuses, it also involves the undermining of our own security. That is why we have to find a good equilibrium between the migrant who is violating our own security, the migrant who encourages criminal gangs. ... I think we have to understand each phenomenon on its own.
In his response, AMLO suggested that his government would not "continue the dirty work" of the United States and detain Central American migrants at Mexico's southern border. And in fact, his government would move Mexico's national immigration agency to Tijuana — closer to the northern border. The leading presidential candidate also recommended that the NAFTA negotiations be used to put together a development plan for Central America as a means to address emigration in the region.
Mexican Migrants in the United States
The four candidates were asked to describe how they would defend the rights of Mexican nationals in the United States, including "Dreamers".
El Bronco proposed that remittances sent to Mexico could be used as funding for the defense of migrants abroad. He also said he would not accept any deal that involved paying for President Trump's wall in exchange for a path to citizenship.
Candidate Meade presented a two-pronged approach to the defense of migrants' rights. First, Mexico should work in sending communities. More specifically, he noted the need to invest in youth education and employment: "we will see less youth looking for opportunities outside Mexico and more youth transforming their country." The second component of his strategy called for the Mexican government to work closely with mayors and governors in the United States. Meade argued that the issues faced by migrants (acquiring a driver's license, school-related costs, and the ability to work in their profession) required a localized approach.
In contrast, Anaya suggested his defense of Mexican nationals in the United States would lean on multilateral organizations. Additionally, he would increase funds to the 50 consulates in the United States and emphasize legal protection for Mexican nationals. Anaya also stated his negotiations on migration issues would not be "piecemeal", rather he would pursue comprehensive negotiations. Finally, Anaya said he would seek legislation that would provide Mexican migrants representation within the Mexican congress.
AMLO promised to convert the 50 Mexican consulates in the United States into "procurators" for the defense of migrants, and to appoint Alicia Bárcena, current executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), as Mexico's ambassador to the UN. Like Anaya, he would put pressure on the United States through organizations like the United Nations. He also took the opportunity to point out that his competitors, as part of the establishment parties, were to blame for the corruption that keeps migrants from receiving the support they need.
Deportations and Reintegration
Finally, the candidates were asked how they would address deportations and reintegration of deportees.
AMLO simply responded that he would encourage deportees to return to their communities of origin. With an equally vague answer, Anaya said he would ensure food, shelter, and medical care for returned Mexicans and facilitate their reintegration. Meade said he would further develop Mexico's northern cities to absorb the deportees as well as migration coming from the south. El Bronco added that Mexico needs to strengthen its companies to attract back talent, including the children of migrants.
Overall, the debate was just another chance for the candidates to play, "who's more corrupt?" and theatrically antagonize one another. However, it also provided an opportunity for the candidates to try to distance themselves from the policies of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been criticized for doing the United States' "dirty work" and remaining silent against President Trump's immigration policies.
The presidential election will be held on July 1. It can be expected that the winner will first decrease or suspend cooperation with the United States (at least in rhetoric) on issues relating to migration and border security, in order to assert Mexico's sovereignty. However, maintaining a strict non-cooperation and open borders agenda could prove difficult. As noted during the debate, the United States holds the upper hand on bilateral negotiations. Moreover, without a relief-valve at its northern border, the new Mexican government would have to truly commit to absorbing any migration coming across its southern border.