Opinion | What the tragedy in San Antonio reveals about migration from Mexico


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Soon after the horrific discovery of more than 40 dead migrants (the number would eventually grow to 53) and several injured inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tried to use the tragedy to score a political point. “These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott tweeted. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”

His statement was disingenuous. In reality, the conditions that led dozens of human beings — including several children — to pile up inside a truck, without water or proper ventilation, is not the sole responsibility of the U.S. president. It is a failure shared by many regional actors, including the governor of Texas himself, who has made the dehumanization of the immigrant community a recurring political ploy.

The details of the horrors in San Antonio also illustrate the failure of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to Mexico’s consul general in San Antonio, at least 27 of the immigrants who died were Mexican. This revealing figure confirms a worrying trend: After years of stability, in which more Mexicans returned to Mexico than those who emigrated to the United States, the displacement of Mexicans to the north has grown again.

During the 2018 presidential campaign and the early days of his presidency, López Obrador specifically promised that by the end of his administration in 2024, migration from Mexico would decrease, if not disappear. “People will be working where they were born, close to their relatives, their environment, with its customs and culture,” he wrote in his campaign book. “No one, out of necessity, to mitigate his hunger and his poverty, will be forced to leave their homeland.”

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Four years on, the opposite has happened: In 2021, Mexico was the largest source of illegal migration to the United States, with 608,000 Mexican nationals arrested by Border Patrol.

“When the government of President López Obrador began, we had 12 years of steadiness in the migratory flow from Mexico to the United States and now we are four or five times above that level,” Tonatiuh Guillén Lopez, who was the first director of migration policy for López Obrador, told me. “The government received a period of very low migration and will be leaving with very high numbers.”

For Carlos Heredia, a professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) and an expert in migration, the current trends in migration stem from an increase in the number of Mexican migrants in the United States, violence in many regions of the country and the struggling national economy. Between 2020 and 2021, during an alarming surge in homicides, the number of people displaced due to violence in Mexico quadrupled. The economy remains stagnant. These factors combine to leave many increasingly desperate to make the precarious journey to and across the border.

“Not enough jobs have been created in Mexico,” says Heredia. Guillén agrees. “The number of Mexican deaths in Texas portrays just this recomposition of the Mexican flow,” he told me.

The Mexican government’s responsibility goes beyond its failure to discourage the flow of Mexican migration to the north. The proliferation of human trafficking networks, which often operate with impunity throughout Mexico and in the United States, is directly related to the horror in San Antonio. “Criminal organizations dedicated to human trafficking have found rougher and dangerous methods for those who want to get to the other side,” writes Mexican journalist Carlos Puig. “And that includes piling them up in a trailer in 100 degree heat.”

For migration expert Heredia, Mexico’s government has “failed in almost everything” in its efforts to curtail trafficking networks. In 2021, Mexican security officials reported a 228 percent jump in people smuggling crimes compared to 2020. “It is an extraordinarily lucrative business that has evaded containment, with anchorage on both sides of the border.”

With the growing migratory flow from Mexico and increasingly aggressive smuggling networks that have no qualms about exposing dozens of people to suffocation and torture, the humanitarian crisis at the border will continue. For López Obrador, it could prove a costly failure.

In an interview at the beginning of his administration, López Obrador mused: “A day will come during my government that Mexicans will not go to work in the United States, because they will have jobs and will be happy where they were born.” The dozens of Mexican bodies piled inside that truck in the sweltering Texas heat bely that promise, in the most tragic way possible.

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