Mexico's president vows to help Central American migrants amid crackdown


Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Saturday his country must help Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, even as it increases security and legal revisions to deter migrants from passing through Mexico en route to the United States.

He has walked a fine line between enforcement and humanitarian overtures for migrants since he took office on Dec. 1. Initially, his administration issued thousands of transit visas for safe passage through Mexico, only to clamp down shortly after with stepped up detentions and deportations. Under pressure from the U.S., Mexico plans to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops by Tuesday to its border with Guatemala to slow the arrival of migrants to the U.S.

Armed soldiers with black National Guard armbands were seen stationed just north of the Guatemalan border on Saturday, stopping trucks to ask passengers for identification. Others pulled what looked to be undocumented migrants off small public buses.

“The truth is that there is a great humanitarian crisis in Central America, and many people out of necessity have set out to look for a life in the United States and they pass through our territory,” said Lopez Obrador, speaking in the northern state of Chihuahua.

Lopez Obrador said the refusal to help foreigners in need is “anti-Christian,” adding, “We can’t turn our backs on them.”

He is lobbying for international development aid to help Central Americans stay in their countries. He said Saturday that 80 percent of the migrants crossing through Mexico toward the U.S. are from the region.

Mexico has offered refuge to migrants with credible fears. Thousands remain in the country while they await court dates for asylum petitions in the U.S. The understaffed and underfunded Mexican refugee commission faces a backlog of cases.

But in recent months, police and immigration authorities have stepped up enforcement in southern Mexico, setting up highway checkpoints, raiding a caravan of mostly Central American migrants and trying to keep people off the northbound train known as “the beast.”

At the same time, Mexicans have grown increasingly intolerant of the large numbers of migrants passing through their country in hopes of reaching the U.S.

A June poll in Mexican newspaper El Universal showed that Mexicans are less receptive to allowing undocumented migrants to come in, or to stay on permanently as refugees, than they were in October, when caravans with thousands of migrants were winding their way north.

A majority of Mexicans who participated in the survey said they favor barring entry to migrants who try cross into Mexico without visas, and a majority now say Mexico should not offer them refugee status.

Mexico’s southern border is porous and difficult to patrol, with dense jungle and rivers.

On Friday, a sociologist who served as Mexico’s immigration chief resigned and was replaced by the country’s director of prisons. Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said an additional 825 immigration agents will be sent to the southern border in the coming week.

Alejandro Murat, governor of the southern state of Oaxaca, applauded the stepped-up enforcement and controls. “For the first time, there will be order on the southern border that will allow us to have the identity and control of who is in the national territory,” Murat said Friday.