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In Mexico, immigration to the U.S. is a political issue

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

Immigration, already a big issue heading into the 2024 presidential election, has grown even more prominent in recent days. U.S. authorities have been apprehending thousands of migrants along the southern border, and images from Mexico show thousands of migrants walking north. This week, President Biden sent top advisers to talk with the Mexican president about the migrant crisis. NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us from Mexico City. Eyder, hello, hello.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Alina.

SELYUKH: What is the latest on those migrants heading north? I think some reports put the group at 10,000 people.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, so first of all, that number is disputed.

SELYUKH: OK.

PERALTA: I mean, there's been some estimates as high as 10,000, but others have said 4,000, 5,000. The Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said the caravan has already dispersed, that they were only about 1,500 migrants and now about 50 miles into Mexico. Either way, what we know is that there are tens of thousands of migrants stuck along Mexico's southern border. That's the border with Guatemala. And many of them have been waiting for weeks or months, and they really can't leave unless they get some kind of permission from Mexican authorities. And that's by design because this is part of Mexico's attempt to make this trip to the U.S. much harder for migrants. But this policy ends up in a kind of cycle. Every few months, the number of migrants grows. These border city swell up, and the conditions deteriorate. Tensions grow, and migrants and sometimes even the authorities decide that they can't take it anymore, and thousands of migrants push their way north as a massive group.

SELYUKH: And what are you hearing from these migrants?

PERALTA: So, look. I spoke to Luis Villagran, who is a migrant rights advocate, and he's traveling with the caravan. And he describes a dire situation in Tapachula, which is a city right along the border with Guatemala. He says shelters are overwhelmed, so many of the migrants are living on the streets. And he says there's also a lot of concern that Mexican authorities are being pressured by the U.S. to conduct a big crackdown, and there's fear that that might start right away. And that basically means that they will begin deporting migrants. So Luis Villagran describes a lot of desperation. Let's listen.

LUIS VILLAGRAN: (Through interpreter) The situation is terrible. But the politicians don't care about the humanitarian crisis. All they want is to get reelected.

PERALTA: And Villagran notes that this historic level of migration in the Americas points to a continent that is in crisis. But he says that it seems that no one is addressing those crises.

SELYUKH: So President Biden sent his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to meet with the Mexican president. Anything come of that?

PERALTA: Look, from the public statements that have been put out by both the U.S. and Mexico, we got nothing new. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says that the meeting happened because President Biden called him, saying that he was concerned that U.S. authorities were apprehending too many migrants. Lopez Obrador says that since that call, Mexico has taken action, and those numbers have dropped, but he didn't say what action Mexico has taken. And he also said that both cabinets agreed to meet again in January.

SELYUKH: OK. How is immigration playing as a political issue there in Mexico?

PERALTA: Well, look. You know, Mexico is also going to elect a president in 2024. So we're in the middle of the same campaign that you all are in the U.S. But immigration isn't really the kind of domestic campaign issue that it is in the U.S., and in a lot of ways, it's also not really a foreign policy issue because there is no light between the U.S. and Mexico on immigration. The Mexican president has taken a softer approach on migrants, but that's rhetorically. But he has gone along with the tougher measures that were put in place by both former President Trump and by President Biden. In fact, if it wasn't for Mexico, some of the toughest U.S. policies on migrants wouldn't be possible. Mexico, for example, is allowing the U.S. to make migrants wait for an asylum hearing in Mexico, and they're allowing the U.S. to expel non-Mexican migrants, deport non-Mexican migrants to Mexico.

SELYUKH: Looking ahead to the election 2024 year, what do you expect from this issue in the new year?

PERALTA: I think we should go back to what migrant rights advocate Luis Villagran told me. He says that the migrants are just a symptom of broken countries in the Americas, and the fact that migration continues at record levels means that those big problems are not being addressed. And I think Haiti is a prime example of that. Gangs have taken over. Its government has basically collapsed. And what is left of that government has been begging for help from the international community. And for more than two years now, the international community has come up empty. They've offered no solutions. The U.N. did vote to send a Kenyan police force to Haiti, but that hasn't happened, and it's not clear when that will happen. So we're very likely to keep seeing migrant caravans, and we're very likely to see immigration stay at the top of U.S. and Mexican relations. But it's also likely that both countries will continue to be vexed by the issue.

SELYUKH: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Mexico City. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Alina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.