MEXICO CITY — Here in Mexico, as around the world, we are haunted by the wrenching image of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, nestled together on the bank of the Rio Grande after they drowned in the river near the international bridge to Texas. This tragedy shines an unforgiving light on the President Trump’s crackdown on legal asylum claims at the border.
These deaths, the more than two dozen others who have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since 2017, and the suffering of countless families, are the direct result of strategic policy choices — from increasing criminal prosecutions of people who illegally cross the border to shutting down legal points of entry and limiting asylum claims.
But Mr. Trump’s policies aren’t just cruel: They simply do not work.
Envisioned as a deterrent, these policies had the opposite effect. In May, about 133,000 migrants were apprehended at the border, a 32 percent increase from April. Experts argue Central Americans are rushing north because they are worried they will miss their opportunity to reach the United States as the Trump administration militarizes the border and removes legal pathways for asylum seekers. June did have a decrease in apprehensions because of increased enforcement in Mexico. But the immense efforts taken by my country have merely returned migration figures to levels that remain among decade-long highs.
These policies fail exactly because they ignore the root causes of mass migration from Central America: failing economies, extreme violence, poverty, food insecurity and the collapse of democratic governance in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Those countries have among the highest rates of homicide in the world, fueled at least partly by the United States’ insatiable demand for drugs.
In March, the Trump administration cut off over $400 million in development aid to the Northern Triangle. Some of this aid was restored because of maneuvering by the Democrat-led House. However, the administration then announced that no additional aid would be provided until it was “satisfied” that governments in the region are “taking concrete actions to reduce the number of migrants.” This is a political game that only escalates regional uncertainty.
The people of Central America are left with a stark choice: endure growing instability, poverty and intensifying violence as part of the failed drug war — or flee now before the border is closed completely. The rapidly rising numbers of families and unaccompanied minors who are willing to risk their lives to make the perilous journey north, even knowing that detention and separation await, speak of the increasing desperation.
Mexico, too, is under pressure because Mr. Trump broke with diplomatic protocol and used trade policy as a bludgeon to advance his immigration agenda. In late May, Mr. Trump once again threatened tariffs, unless Mexico apprehended and deported more migrants. With this hard-line move — since called off, at least for the moment — the United States also put at risk a new trade agreement and relations with its No. 1 trading partner.
These threats have been made even though Mexico, which President Trump has called “all talk and no action,” has already apprehended some 100,000 migrants in 2019, 85 percent of them from Northern Triangle countries. As courts in the United States continue to rule on the legality of closing the border to asylum claims — a right enshrined in international refugee law — Mexico is expanding its “Remain in Mexico” program, which will allow thousands of migrants to await their American asylum hearings in my country.
Mexico is treating this crisis as it should be — as a humanitarian emergency. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pledged to treat asylum seekers with dignity and support, and has said he wants to guarantee them health, safety and opportunity. Mr. López Obrador is working to provide migrants with jobs, and wants to find other ways to make it easier for them to work while they await their asylum rulings.
Taking the long view, Mr. López Obrador has also called for a “new Marshall Plan” to meet the challenge at its roots, in Central America, with a $30 billion initiative to invest in the region and support migrants in Mexico. While the United States pulls out of development projects, Mexico has already committed $30 million to a reforestation project in El Salvador, which will plant 50,000 hectares (about 124,000 acres) of trees and create 20,000 jobs.
Rather than using fear and cruelty to achieve shortsighted, unilateral political gain, we need to restore politics of humanity.
For Mr. Trump, the deaths of migrants, the economic damage of his trade wars, the unaddressed impact of American demand for illicit drugs, and cuts in development aid to Central America are just collateral damage from his re-election campaign. For Mr. López Obrador, our neighboring nations and their people deserve empathy, humanity and committed support to build long-term economic success, livelihoods, security and free, fair and stable democracies where families aren’t forced to flee their home.
I know which is the right side to stand on.
Ricardo B. Salinas is the president and founder of Grupo Salinas.
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