The Man Who Now Controls the U.S. Border

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

In early January, I drove along the Pan-American Highway in the scenic Mexican state of Oaxaca. On the opposite side of the road, the Mexican National Guard had erected a temporary roadblock. A line of cars heading north had halted. Uniformed officers walked down the line, questioning drivers. They were searching for migrants bound for the United States.

A few hours later, I returned by the same route. I braced myself for the obstruction and delay. There was none. The roadblock had vanished.

In the effort to contain unauthorized migration to the U.S., Mexico is an on-again, off-again partner. Sometimes it helps more; sometimes less.

In 2022, Mexico detained almost 320,000 migrants and expelled 106,000, according to a condemnatory report by Amnesty International. Detainees were held under conditions much harsher than would be allowed in the U.S. A migrant from El Salvador described the facility where he was held in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town adjoining El Paso, Texas. As NPR reported in 2023:

There was no water and scant food. There was no toilet paper and no running water in the two open-air toilets. Sewage spilled onto the floor. The migrants were getting desperate, clamoring for help and pleading to not be deported home, but guards from Mexico’s immigration agency were increasingly dismissive. “I asked for water and a guard responded, ‘You want it, give me 500 pesos,’” the migrant from El Salvador recalls. That’s about $30. To migrants’ demands for water, another guard said, “Go back to your own country and complain there.”

To protest the conditions, some migrants from Venezuela set fire to a foam sleeping mat. The guards, subcontracted civilians, feared a mass breakout. They refused to open the doors. The fire spread. Of the 67 men and 15 women crammed into two cells, 40 perished—some immediately, others after days of suffering. Another 27 survived despite severe burns and other injuries. The migrant who spoke with NPR was one of those few survivors.

In 2019, the Trump administration imposed a “Remain in Mexico” policy on asylum-seeking migrants. After much political and legal back-and-forth in the United States, Mexico definitively withdrew from the “Remain in Mexico” program in February 2023. But the mass death at the Ciudad Juárez detention facility the following month is a reminder of Mexico’s continuing role in U.S. border enforcement and the grim human consequences of delegating the job to Mexico. If America’s inconsistent and unpredictable asylum policy were less enticing, fewer people would be tempted to invest the money and incur the hazards of crossing Mexico to reach the United States. The United States flashes the message “You can probably stay if you get here” and then quietly looks to its southern neighbor to magnify the dangers of that tempting if.

Delegating the job of border enforcement to Mexico also creates opportunities for Mexican leaders to influence U.S. politics. At a press conference in December, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shared a slide showing the month-by-month tally of unauthorized crossings into the U.S. After a lull in the summer of 2023, entries spiked in the second half of the year, exceeding 250,000 that month. An American president up for reelection might look at that slideshow from his Mexican counterpart and see not merely an analysis but a threat about the trouble that the counterpart could stir or soothe.

The migrant traffic has slowed in the first weeks of 2024. The border deal that failed to pass the U.S. Senate earlier this month was intended to reassert American control over entry into the U.S. Rejection of the deal shifts power over the border, back into López Obrador’s eager hands.


Mexico faces an election of its own in June. López Obrador’s name will not appear on the ballot. Since the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution a century ago, the taboo against presidents’ reelection has hardened to near absolute. López Obrador has broken many rules over his six-year presidency, but the no-reelection rule is too sacred even for him to discard. Instead, he has selected a desired successor, and he is ruthlessly manipulating the Mexican electoral system to ensure her victory.

Until the mid-1990s, Mexico was ruled by a single party. Opposition parties were tolerated, so long as they accepted that they would never be allowed to gain or exercise power. Opposition politicians who pushed the limits of the one-party system would be harassed, intimidated, or (as a last resort) assassinated. Elections were held at regular intervals, but they were shamelessly manipulated by the state apparatus in the ruling party’s favor.

As Mexico democratized after 1994, laws were adopted to prohibit the bad practices bequeathed by 75 years of authoritarian rule. If Mexico’s election protocols seem strangely strict by American or European standards, each detail responds to a previous history of abuse. So if a governing party violates Mexico’s typically stringent rules, that’s an action more ominous than mere cheating. It implies a determination to restore the bad old days when the government decided the elections, rather than the elections deciding the government.

In ways large and small, the López Obrador administration is twisting election rules for partisan advantage. In an essay last year, I described López Obrador’s damage to Mexico’s independent electoral commission. Since then, the president has turned against the Mexican Supreme Court too. He has proposed that judges be elected in partisan contests, ones that he expects his party to control and win. Failing that, he is using loopholes in Mexican law to bypass the constitution’s advise-and-consent measures in order to install loyalists on the 11-member high court.

The United States might at another time have raised objections to López Obrador’s attacks on Mexican democratic institutions. But the Biden administration has kept quiet. López Obrador has proclaimed again and again his preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. The Mexican president lavished Trump with praise and deferred to Trump’s denial of the 2020 presidential-election outcome. López Obrador knows that Trump will say and do nothing to uphold Mexican democracy, whereas he fears that a reelected Biden might. López Obrador’s leading rival for the presidency, Xóchitl Gálvez, told me in Washington, D.C., last week, “President López Obrador blackmails America with the issue of immigrants.”

Gálvez is an up-from-poverty member of the Mexican Senate. She started her career in the National Action Party (PAN), a business-oriented, socially conservative party based in the north of the country. But she has also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and abortion rights, stances that have helped win her support from the traditional party of the left, the Party of Revolutionary Democracy (PRD). By building a broad ideological coalition, she has united most of Mexico’s normally fractious opposition parties behind her campaign for president.

A third candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, is offering his own even more idiosyncratic fusion of left-of-center economics—Álvarez Máynez’s father was a founder of the Mexican Communist Party—with liberal values on abortion and gay rights, praise for the anti-crime crackdown in El Salvador, and support for Ukraine against López Obrador’s visible partiality for Russia. So far, Álvarez Máynez trails a distant third in the polls.


I attended a Gálvez rally in Oaxaca City in early January. Among the crowd, people wearing the yellow shirts of the PRD outnumbered supporters in the blue-and-white colors of the PAN by a margin of at least three to one.

To run against López Obrador takes real physical courage. Mexico suffers acutely from criminal violence, and has a homicide rate almost triple that of the United States. The bloodshed stains politics, too. Ninety-seven candidates in the 2021 municipal, state, and congressional elections were murdered, according to a Mexican security consultancy.

Much of this violence originates in local criminal disputes, but there’s no mistaking the ensuing pattern: Opposition candidates are at much greater risk than pro-government ones. In 2021, the opposition coalition recruited a former Olympic athlete, Zudikey Rodríguez, as its candidate for mayor of a popular resort town in Mexico State. Rodríguez was kidnapped by gangsters who reportedly said they were ordered to murder her but mercifully spared her life. Although Rodríguez was eventually released and, despite the threat, resumed campaigning shortly before polling day, López Obrador’s Morena party held the mayor’s seat.

Last month, ProPublica published an investigation based on U.S. intelligence assessments that criminal cartels had contributed millions of dollars to support López Obrador’s unsuccessful 2006 bid for the presidency. López Obrador has angrily denied these allegations.

At other times, López Obrador has seemingly gone out of his way to show deference to crime figures—most notoriously in a video clip from 2020 that showed him walking down a dirt road toward a car in which sat the mother of the crime lord known as El Chapo. She reached out of the car window to shake the president’s hand. When the video became public, López Obrador praised El Chapo’s mother as a “respectable old lady” and demanded to know whether he was supposed to have ignored her offered hand. Not he but his critics, he said in that same press conference, were the ones who truly threatened legality in Mexico.

Gálvez alleged that criminal funding of the Morena party continues today. In our interview, she cited reports that large sums of money derived from gasoline smuggling have entered politics, and that most of that money has gone to pro-government parties.

Against the challenge from Gálvez, López Obrador has cast his support behind a party ally named Claudia Sheinbaum, a former mayor of Mexico City. This has set up a historic first for Mexico: a two-woman contest for the presidency. Another novelty is that Sheinbaum has Jewish family on both her mother’s and father’s sides, although she herself makes little of her ancestry. She started her political career on the doctrinaire-socialist left and has never been involved in any form of Jewish communal life. She has been seen on the campaign trail wearing a crucifix necklace. In February, she presented a silver rose blessed by Pope Francis to the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important Catholic pilgrimage site. Although Morena is often described as a left-wing party, its appeal is also strongly religious and culturally conservative. Morena is an acronym for Movement of National Renewal, but the word is also an affectionate nickname for the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, “the brown one.”

López Obrador is genuinely popular in Mexico. During his tenure, Mexico overtook China as the top trading partner of the United States, and the peso has strengthened against the dollar. López Obrador has redirected state expenditure from social-insurance programs that favored Mexicans in the tax-paying formal economy to more universal cash grants that assist all Mexicans, whether they work on or off the books. López Obrador’s political persona speaks to what you might call “Middle Mexico.” He’s hostile to the white-skinned business elite in their fancy towers in Mexico City, but he’s no socialist; he is noisily anti-American but accepts the benefits of trade with the U.S.; he uses the language of the ideological left while relying on folk medicine and religious talismans to protect himself from COVID-19.

How that popularity might be transferred to his preferred successor is not straightforward. A highly credentialed energy engineer, Sheinbaum is not a master of the common touch. That’s why López Obrador is working so hard to curtail democratic choice for her benefit. Under the pressure of electioneering, López Obrador’s authoritarian tendencies are growing worse. After The New York Times recently reported on a critical investigation of him, he retaliated by reading aloud the cellphone number of the paper’s Mexico bureau chief—an invasion of privacy that is not only illegal under Mexican law but also could endanger the reporter (Mexico being one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists).

In past election cycles, a president’s authority would fade as soon as a successor was nominated. Not this time. López Obrador remains very much the man in charge. “I have two adversaries,” Gálvez said in our interview, “López Obrador and Sheinbaum.” Of those two, she implied, the former represents the biggest challenge.

Sheinbaum may be the immediate beneficiary of López Obrador’s plans for a state-rigged Mexican election. But López Obrador is the architect of those plans—and their outcome will shape the future not only of Mexico but also of the United States.


If immigration proves to be one of Biden’s greatest weaknesses in 2024—and a top issue for the Republicans—then the Democratic incumbent, too, will face two adversaries: both Trump and his ally López Obrador. Trump’s interference defeated the Senate deal that would have helped Biden close the door to unauthorized migrants. Instead, López Obrador will now get to decide how many migrants are allowed to go through.

The Mexican president will remain in office until his elected successor is inaugurated on the first of October, little more than a month before the U.S. election. He can, if he so chooses, intensify or calm the crisis at the border. In so doing, he will be able to shape to his will the mood over a central issue in the U.S. presidential election. By rejecting the Senate border deal at Trump’s command, congressional Republicans have maximized López Obrador’s sway over U.S. politics.

A year ago, I called López Obrador the “autocrat next door.” Now the autocrat next door may help decide whether the United States will be doomed to a return of the autocrat at home.

David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Source

Leave a Comment