In recent months, at least 3,000 immigrants have been sent back to towns along the Mexican border between Tamaulipas and Texas, one of the country’s most dangerous areas. What they have faced there defies the imagination. The city of Nuevo Laredo is a well-known hotbed of extortion and kidnapping. Immigrants make easy targets. “These people have been thrown into the lion’s den,” local journalist Daniel Rosas told me recently.
According to Rosas, President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program has been particularly harmful, placing thousands of immigrants in imminent danger. “If even us locals are going through a very difficult time dealing with violence here, just imagine what life is like for an immigrant who doesn’t have a home and doesn’t know anyone. This place is completely unsafe,” Rosas told me. In the city of Nuevo Laredo, Rosas described a Dantean scene in which people working for cartels are tasked with identifying and abducting immigrants, who are then taken away to safehouses where they are held for ransom.
“In Tamaulipas, migrants are the most vulnerable. They suffer every kind of abuse imaginable,” he told me. Rosas seemed particularly worried for women and children in Tamaulipas. “They are completely defenseless,” Rosas told me. “When they were waiting and trying to rest under the bridge, there were kids sleeping on cardboard, without any help. They live through sheer horror,” he said.
This nightmare is the predictable result of recent actions by governments on both sides of the border. Three months ago, faced with Trump’s tariff blackmail, Mexico’s government capitulated and agreed to a series of unprecedented measures to reduce the flow of Central American immigrants reaching the United States. Terrified by the possibility of a trade war, President Andres Manuel López Obrador’s administration deployed thousands of troops along Mexico’s southern border, gave control of the country’s immigration authority to an expert in incarceration and enforcement, and pledged full cooperation with some of Trump’s more controversial immigration policies. As part of the deal, Mexican government officials agreed to return to Washington every few months with evidence of results, a recurrent humiliating pilgrimage in search of Trump’s approval and a renewed deferral of the looming tariff threat.
Ten days ago, after his first assessment in Washington with Trump’s inner circle—and, briefly, the president himself—Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gave a victorious but ultimately unfortunate news conference. Ebrard claimed that the much-touted downward trend in the number of immigrants reaching the United States would likely be “permanent,” although historical trends suggest the flow of immigrants will likely increase during the fall. Ebrard then said the Mexican government had demanded new and strict gun control measures in the United States. The goal, Ebrard boasted, was to “freeze” gun trafficking along the border. This is disingenuous. Ebrard knows any sort of significant reduction in gun smuggling from the United States would require legislative measures that the Trump administration and the Republican Party will not pursue.
Ebrard then concluded by saying the López Obrador administration had nothing to apologize for on immigration. “We do not regret anything of what’s been implemented,” Ebrard said. “We haven’t done anything we should be ashamed of.”
He is wrong.
The Mexican government’s cooperation with Donald Trump’s punitive immigration strategy has created a calamity along the country’s northern border. Of the many complications, none is more potentially catastrophic than the broad implementation of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. The measure forces potential refugees to wait for months (or years) in Mexico for a slim chance at asylum in the United States. It has opened the door to the creation of a massive community of rootless and marginalized immigrants living in perilous limbo in some of Mexico’s most dangerous areas. There are now close to 38,000 immigrants waiting in Mexico because of MPP. After meeting with Ebrard, the White House announced the program would be expanded “to the fullest extent possible,” dramatically increasing the number of potential refugees returned to Mexico, many to regions of the country where they face almost certain peril.
No place seems safe, not even shelters run by religious organizations, one of the few reliable options in other border towns like Tijuana. In Nuevo Laredo, organized crime knows no bounds. Just last month, local pastor Aarón Méndez, who runs the “Casa del Migrante AMAR” shelter in the city, reportedly tried to protect a group of Cuban migrants from a group of abductors. They kidnapped Méndez instead. No one has heard from him since.
Things aren’t much better in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. In recent years, the city has seen “open warfare” between rival cartels. American attorney Kristin Clarens, who has been traveling to the region over the past few months to assist potential refugees and make sense of the dire situation in the region, told me she has never met an asylum-seeking immigrant who felt safe in Mexico. “To the contrary,” Clarens said, “most of the people I’ve met described routine and regular acts of violence, such as kidnapping, assault, and extortion.” According to Clarens, migrants in Matamoros, like those in Nuevo Laredo, are facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis. “The heat is intense and unrelenting, and they lack access to sanitation, water, shade, food, and basic shelter,” she told me. “People hike down to the river and use the river to clean themselves, wash their clothes, and occasionally drink. Children and adults are sick and covered with bug bites and lesions.”
Like Rosas, Clarens believes “Remain in Mexico” has complicated the already formidable immigration challenge in the region. “The MPP sends people back to Mexico, where many have been repeatedly victimized by organized criminals or other dangerous groups,” Clarens said. “Their access to the legal system in the U.S.—which had already been severely reduced by the Trump administration—is effectively cut off. MPP will force people to remain for a significant period of time in one of the most vulnerable and dangerous living situations they’ve ever imagined experiencing.” Clarens thinks the crisis will likely worsen. “I know that Mexico can be a safe and stable place for many people, but impoverished and incredibly vulnerable Central Americans who are desperate for security and are leaving their countries of origin for the first time are not able to stay safe,” she told me.
If Mexico continues to quietly go along with the radical expansion of the MPP program, the number of immigrants waiting for asylum in the country could reach the hundreds of thousands. With Mexico’s official refugee agency operating on a ridiculous $1.3 million yearly budget, the López Obrador administration is not remotely ready for such an undertaking. The consequences could be severe. If that happens, Ebrard should be asked again if Mexico really has nothing to be ashamed of.