This pull to the border for many migrants from Mexico was clear even before Mr. Biden was elected. In 2018, before Mr. López Obrador took office, and the Mexican economy was growing, albeit slowly, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended about 18,500 migrants from Mexico on average per month. In 2019, the monthly average number of detained migrants from Mexico grew slightly, and their share in total yearly apprehensions decreased, in part because of AMLO’s initial open-arms policy toward Central Americans that began in May. That month, apprehensions of Central Americans skyrocketed to 104,000 from 76,000 in April.
That led Mr. Trump to go ballistic and threaten to slap up to 25 percent tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico. It was enough for Mr. López Obrador to cave, deploy more troops on the country’s southern and northern borders to keep Central Americans from reaching the United States, and accept the shameful Migration Protection Protocol, in which asylum seekers must stay in makeshift camps located in crime-infested border towns, often under unsanitary conditions, to wait for their hearing in Mexico.
Last June, apprehensions of Central American migrants subsequently fell to as few as 3,753. Meanwhile, however, nearly 298,000 migrants from Mexico were detained last year, the highest annual total since 2010. They made up 65 percent of all migrants apprehended at the border. As long as the U.S. and Mexican economies are performing in opposite directions, people will continue moving north for opportunities.
The past may offer insights for what is to come. In the mid 1990s, Mexico’s economy collapsed in the so-called Tequila Crisis, while the United States enjoyed the Clinton boom. It was during this time when undocumented migration from Mexico jumped, with the overall unauthorized population growing from 5.7 million in 1995 to 8.4 million by the early years of this century.
Today Mexico is mired in its worst depression since the 1930s, having contracted more than 8 percent in 2020. Its recovery is expected to be sluggish. Meanwhile, the United States is undergoing a formidable economic recovery, after shrinking a modest 3.5 percent last year.
Who will build America’s new highways and bridges? Who will man the construction sites dotted along its skylines? And who will serve patrons at the myriad restaurants Americans will flock to when they reopen? Many of them will be Mexican migrants.
There is, however, one big difference between the mid-90s and now: AMLO. Corruption may be endemic in Mexico, but his increasingly nationalist, statist, populist and authoritarian stances are beginning to threaten Mexico’s barely 25 year-old democracy by destroying the institutions of transparency and the systems of checks and balances. Even during the corrupt years of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, democratic institutions were respected. We should not judge these developments lightly.