Experts: Mexican President’s Defense of Migrants at UN Doesn’t Square With Reality at Home

Mark Browne | September 22, 2016 | 11:08pm EDT
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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto addresses U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday, September 23, 2016. (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

Mexico City ( – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto this week delivered a vigorous case for respecting migrants, but immigration experts say his words are at odds with the reality of how Mexico treats migrants fleeing violence in Central America.

Addressing the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants on Monday, Peña Nieto said “Mexicans believe that the mixing of cultures and races is the future and destiny of humanity.”

“Cultures are revitalized and enriched when they live together and talk to each other. Migrants have been the principal partners in this,” he said. “We must put migrants, along with their rights, dignity and well-being in the center of the global dialogue.”

Peña Nieto called for a focus on human rights establishing the obligations of all states towards migrants; recognition of migrants’ contribution to economic and social development; and social inclusion to help eliminate intolerance, prejudice and racism.

Mexico’s actual treatment of migrants, however, is “absolutely dysfunctional,” according to Javier Reyes, an expert on migrants at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.

Reyes said in an email the president’s words were “narrative without content,” and that migrants entering Mexico “continue to face severe problems,” including extortion, theft, fraud and human trafficking by organized crime.

They are not welcomed by Mexico “under any circumstances.”

Reyes said that Argentinian, Brazilian, and Chilean migrants are treated better by the Mexican government and have “on average fewer problems of integrating into Mexican society” than Colombians, Ecuadorians, or Venezuelans.

He said the president does not have a clear idea of what a migration policy means, “or how to have an instrumental dialogue with Central American nations about international cooperation so as to define migration strategies.”

Mexico detained and deported approximately 130,000 Central American migrants last year, including more than 35,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to Gretchen Kuhner of the Women in Migration Institute in Mexico City.

“Mexico has a restrictive policy that is supported by the U.S. to try to contain or dissuade Central American refugees from reaching the U.S.,” she said.

The institute has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three indigenous farm workers from Chiapas who were detained by immigration authorities for eight days at a detention center in the city of Queretaro.

“One of the boys who was there had electrical shock to his hands because they thought he was Guatemalan and they thought he was lying,” Kuhner said.

Recent studies by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees show that between 50-60 percent of the people leaving Central America have international protection needs, she said.

“Mexico has to change the way it deals with migrants because it is now dealing with refugees,” she added.

One change made by the government has been to reform the Constitution to “acknowledge the human right to seek and receive asylum,” according to a report released Monday by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA.)

A unit dedicated to investigating crimes against immigrants has also been created within the federal attorney general’s office, it noted.

But the report criticized the treatment of migrants fleeing into Mexico, where 425,058 had been detained between 2014 and 2016. It also called the level of recognition of refugees by the government “shockingly low.”

“Migrant shelters throughout the country continue to document kidnappings, extortions, robberies, and other abuses, many at the hands of corrupt officials,” the report found.

According to WOLA, Mexico deported some 181,163 migrants last year, and another 83,383 in the first six month of 2016. This year could account for “the highest number of detentions, deportations, and asylum petitions” yet recorded in Mexico.

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