When he launched his book Hey, Trump two years ago in Los Angeles before he became Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to defend migrants and “not do the dirty work of detaining on our southern border Central Americans who are moving in search of jobs”.
By this week, he had deployed a new militarised police force to the frontier with Guatemala to stop undocumented migrants from entering the country and ordered bus companies to require passengers to show identification when buying tickets — all part of efforts to try to halt the flow of migrants to the US.
As Mexico races to slash Central American migrant numbers by a July 22 deadline to satisfy demands by US president Donald Trump and stave off future tariff threats, Mr López Obrador, who is to meet his Salvadoran counterpart Nayib Bukele in Tapachula near the Mexico-Guatemalan border on Thursday, is facing a political backlash even from allies over his government’s handling of the crisis.
“We’ve seen pretty evident dissent over this policy of submission that many disagree with,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst, highlighting criticism from Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, who heads the lower house of Congress, and the resignation of Tonatiuh Guillén as director of the National Migration Institute.
Since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico and the US have successfully kept the issues of migration and trade separate. But incensed by rising migrant flows from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which rose 32 per cent in May compared with April, Mr Trump has demanded action from Mexico. Mr López Obrador, who wants to avoid confrontation with the US president, rushed to deliver.
“Mexico is doing everything Washington wants,” said Juan Benítez, a 41-year-old Honduran migrant at a shelter in Tapachula. “They could have done more for us.”
Until the last minute, the Mexicans had been pessimistic about averting the damaging levies threatened by Mr Trump to punish Mexico for not curbing migrant flows. But the government’s relief at the June 7 deal was quickly tempered by domestic outrage.
“López Obrador and [foreign minister Marcelo] Ebrard have painted themselves into a corner and will find it very difficult to get out,” said Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister.
Mr Muñoz Ledo has slammed the “moral dissolution of the Mexican state”, saying in a radio interview that Mr Trump “squeezes us when he wants . . . he squeezes us economically but we give him everything. This is not possible, no, just no.”
Mr López Obrador has also been the brunt of memes on social media — including one portraying him as White House employee of the month — since the June deal.
The reaction in part reflects poor handling of the announcement.
Mr Trump insisted parts of the deal were secret and a senior Mexican official angered Senators before a hearing with Mr Ebrard last Friday by pretending not even to have a copy. Within hours, the foreign ministry had published the text. “We were insulted,” said Geovanna Bañuelos, co-ordinator of the Workers’ Party, an ally of ruling party Morena, who otherwise applauded its contents.
The deal gives Mexico a 45-day breather: if Mr Trump is not satisfied that enough progress has been made, talks will resume, including on forcing asylum seekers to seek refuge in Mexico. This so-called safe third country agreement is controversial partly because rights groups say Mexico’s high homicide rate means the country is anything but safe.
“Ebrard has already committed to being a safe third country legally and the Americans will hold him to it in just the same way they held him to ‘Remain in Mexico’,” said Mr Rozental. That programme forces Mexico to take back asylum seekers pending their hearings in US courts, a wait that can take years.
While Mexico’s crackdown was expected to slow the pace of migration, experts noted that there is usually less migration in the hot summer months anyway. That raises the prospect of Mexico facing renewed pressure within a few months when numbers rise again. “I don’t think there is any way to bring this [migrant flows] back to zero,” said Cris Ramón at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Francisco Garduño, the former prisons chief who replaced Mr Guillén at the National Migration Institute, has now set a goal of 2,500 deportations a day. In the first four months of 2019, Mexico returned 37,450 migrants, including both deportations and voluntary returnees — a daily average of about 312. The institute’s budget has been slashed under the government’s austerity drive and it is not clear how he can deliver.
Some analysts blame Mexico’s own policies for the rise in migration. After taking office in December, Mr López Obrador offered migrants humanitarian visas. Many used them to travel unimpeded towards the US border. “They generated this problem with humanitarian visas — the figures tell you that this is a problem created by this administration,” said Jorge Buendía of polling group Laredo & Buendía.
Even amid criticism that Mexico has conceded too much to the US, public opinion in Mexico is hardening against the migrants, A poll this month by El Universal newspaper found nearly two-thirds in favour of refusing entry to undocumented migrants, a nearly 13 point rise since October when the first wave of migrants arrived in Mexico from Central America.
“This is an issue that can definitely divide his electoral base and the governing coalition, as well as polarising the population,” Mr Buendía said.
Mr López Obrador may have trouble selling an austerity drive to Mexicans while promising aid to migrants, he noted.
Mr Garduño, in an interview with Mexican news agency Notimex, highlighted pledges of temporary jobs for migrants while “there are lots of Mexicans who would like this type of aid”.
“This is an issue no one can win,” said Mr Buendía.