Photo by Marilyn Alvarado Levya
Americas / Mexico

Reining in the Beast: Mexico Cracks Down on Illegal Immigration

The freight train barrels north, the cars rattling on the track. At first glance, it appears the same as any of the other thousands of trains that pass through Mexico daily. But on closer inspection, one can see the masses of people clinging perilously to its roof as they hurtle towards the next obstacle on their harrowing journey: the border between the United States and Mexico. There is nothing but speed, wind, and a desperate prayer to remain precariously balanced on the roof of the cars. For those who fall, the best outcome is a broken limb and abandonment; the worst, death. This is why the train has been called “el tren de la muerte,” the train of death.

Equally ominous is its more common name: “La Bestia” or “The Beast.” The train has carried tens of thousands of people, many of whom are minors, on the treacherous path north from Central America through Mexico and into the United States. While the total number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. has slowly but steadily increased in recent years, the number of unaccompanied minors has skyrocketed. In the past, an average of seven to eight thousand minors were caught crossing the border annually. Last year, that number grew to 24,000, and this year’s projection is set at 60,000. Many blame President Obama, arguing that his policy of temporarily deferring deportations, which was instituted at the beginning of the summer, sent a message that spread like wildfire through Central America, convincing children and their parents that if they made it to the US, they would be permitted to stay.

In the past, “La Bestia” offered one of the most reliable routes for migrants trying to make it to the states, as the Mexican police force turned a blind eye. However, after years of maintaining that illegal immigration is a “US problem,” Mexico has recently launched its largest crackdown on illegal immigration in decades. Whereas Mexico in the past commonly gave visas to Central Americans who had been deported from the U.S. and who could not, or did not, want to return home, it is now beginning to deport its own immigrants in large numbers. Over 38,000 Central Americans have already been deported from Mexico this year. In addition, Mexican police have increased the number of roadway checkpoints and have begun raiding hotels and flophouses where immigrants gather on their journey. Unsurprisingly, they have also started raiding “La Bestia,” cutting off one of the last major forms of transport north. Mexico’s recent decision to aggressively intervene will certainly create enormous political and social change regarding illegal immigration. While no one can be sure what form this change will take, it is sure to affect the lives of current and future immigrants, and will almost definitely alter the relationship between the US and the rest of Latin America.

Mexico’s recent change in policy is directly related to increased pressure from the Obama administration, which is tired of single-handedly managing the immigration problem. It also stems from the embarrassing and widely publicized photographs of “La Bestia,” overloaded with stowaways, many of them children, attempting the dangerous trip north. Some believe that Mexico is taking action to prevent further US intervention via border patrol police who have crossed into Mexico on numerous occasions.

However, in its attempts to keep the US content and out of its territory, Mexico must tread carefully to avoid angering its neighbors to the south. The governments of Central America have already criticized recent Mexican actions, comparing Mexican police to the US Border Patrol, a comparison Mexico wishes to avoid. As the middle man, Mexico is caught in a nasty tug of war, one in which it is being pulled to side with the US. Other Latin American nations are dismayed by what they see as an affront to independent action due to US bullying in the region.

Thanks to word of mouth about the recent developments in Mexico, many Central Americans are choosing not to make the dangerous journey north. While this may be good news for Mexican and US officials, it does not begin to solve the problems facing would-be immigrants. The overwhelming majority of immigrants come from the impoverished nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where the weakening power of government has given free rein to gangs and drug cartels in a bloody power struggle. Honduras is one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the hemisphere, currently sporting the highest murder rate in the world with an average of 19 murders per day. El Salvador’s murder rate of 41.2 per 100,000 people is approximately ten times that of the US. And each year there are more murders in Guatemala than in the entire European Union.

Despite recent actions taken by the Mexican government, the Obama administration is wary to declare the problem solved, and rightly so. For one thing, it remains to be seen how long Mexico will continue to maintain its strict new policy. Additionally, as Mexico is ratcheting up pressure, President Obama is being accused of backing off on his commitment to dealing with the immigration crisis until after the November elections, when his actions no longer pose a political threat to Democrats running in key Senate races.

No matter how difficult the journey north, people will continue to attempt it as long as they feel it is a safer option than remaining at home. It is becoming increasingly apparent that attempts to stop immigrants will not be effective unless the internal security and economic problems facing Central American nations are addressed. The US and Mexico must work together to help Central America stabilize and raise standards of living. Until this happens, no real progress will be made, and the wheels of “La Bestia” will just keep turning.