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Joe Biden’s presidential victory has brought temporary relief for many undocumented and mixed-status families in the US. Biden promised to reverse several of Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugee policy within his first 100 days in office including reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, ending the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) also known as “Remain in Mexico,” and creating a “road map” to citizenship for the approximate 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the US. While Biden’s immigration agenda contains federal and local level priorities, little emphasis has yet been placed on the bilateral scale with the US’s southern neighbour, Mexico.

Yet, bilateral immigration negotiations should be a priority for administrations on both sides of the border. In the US, Trump inherited a well-funded US deportation infrastructure that allowed him to carry out his anti-immigrant agenda. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as “AMLO,” expressed passivity toward Trump’s economic threats, pushing Mexico into becoming a de facto safe third country. Paradoxically, Mexico has also become a country of removal and legal limbo for asylum seekers and continuous neglect for Mexican deportees.

What factors will shape Biden and AMLO’s politics on migration? Will the US and Mexico return to the status quo – a tradition of mutual deterrence and enforcement disguised in discourses of hospitality? Three factors are likely to condition how these bilateral politics of migration will play out in the upcoming years: the COVID-19 pandemic, the US’s robust deportation infrastructure and Biden and AMLO’s stances on intervention.


The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the Trump administration to end asylum and expedite the removal of asylum seekers and non-citizens in the name of public health.  The pandemic also made visible the limits of Mexican political institutions to prevent asylum seekers and detainees from facing legal limbo. After Trump announced the complete closure of the US border to asylum seekers, the Mexican government agreed to receive them. Since April 2020, the Trump administration has expelled roughly 20,000 non-Mexican migrants to Mexico where they can request asylum. However, prior to the pandemic, roughly 60,000 asylum seekers had been returned to Mexico as Trump’s 2018 metering policy and “Remain in Mexico” protocols were implemented. An expanding number of returnees now thus only further cripples Mexico’s already underfunded refugee system.

The lack of funding as well as the complete shutdown of Mexican government agencies due to the pandemic has made it difficult for asylum seekers and Mexican deportees to access essential identification documentations leaving them in legal limbo. Nonprofit organizations across Mexico are filling the gaps that Mexican institutions are unwilling to address from providing meals and temporary shelter to offering legal representation and medical assistance. However, the pandemic, organised crime, and AMLO’s budget cuts have made these tasks challenging.

The US’s Robust Deportation Infrastructure

Since announcing his 2020 presidential candidacy, Biden faced backlash from immigrant rights organisations for the approximate three million formal removals carried out by the Obama administration. This was the highest number of formal removals in US history, earning Obama the title “Deporter-in-Chief.” Such discourse, however, can undercut a critical examination of the robust deportation infrastructure of policies, laws and mechanisms that the Obama administration inherited and recycled from his predecessors. In particular, the implementation of the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) under the Clinton administration paved the way for Bush, Obama and Trump in turn.

IIRIRA facilitates the process of arresting, detaining and deporting non-citizens through broadening the types of crimes that can result in deportation, eliminating due process from the majority of removal cases, and establishing the 287(g) program, which allows local and state law officials to enforce federal immigration statutes. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration further expanded the deportation infrastructure through enacting 287(g) agreements with 72 local and state law enforcement offices. Furthermore, in 2003, Bush founded the Department of Homeland Security which oversees the U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the two largest immigration enforcement agencies responsible for apprehending, detaining, and expelling non-citizens. Since its creation in 2003, Congress has allocated roughly $385 billion to CBP and ICE.

But the deportation infrastructure did not stop there. In 2008, the Bush administration implemented Secure Communities, a program that allows local and state jails to share the fingerprints of inmates with ICE. Ultimately, this allows ICE to identify non-citizens in jails that are deportable under immigration law. Obama continued the Secure Communities program, but under constant pressure from immigrant organisers the program was discontinued in 2014. Trump resumed the program in 2017. These developments across administrations demonstrate how the US’s robust enforcement and deportation infrastructure has expanded under explicitly bipartisan support.

From 2002 through 2018, roughly 6.2 million Mexicans were deported by the US, posing challenges for both governments. In the US, these mass deportations generate cycles of fear, trauma and family separation among precarious immigration communities while in Mexico, the lack of coordination and transparency across national government institutions and bureaucracies has made it difficult for deportees to exercise their rights as citizens. In particular, Mexican deportees face difficulties in applying for identification documents, prolonging their access to health and social services, housing, education and employment.

The Biden administration has yet to announce what legal frameworks and mechanisms his administration will implement for governing such migration flows.  Although Biden could reverse some of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies with executive orders within his first 100 days in office, his efforts in creating a pathway towards citizenship will largely depend on which political party controls the Senate in January. Even under Democratic control, the likely continued lack of action from the Senate and administration on abolishing IIRIRA will result in no real pathway towards transforming the US’s immigration system. A politics of migration structured under the legal frameworks of IIRIRA will continue to systemically criminalise non-citizens, keep families in precarious statuses and expand for-profit detention and the scope of deportations, posing challenges for countries of origin, including Mexico.

Differences on Intervention

While the amount of unauthorized Mexican migration to the US has decreased since 2007, the number of Mexicans seeking political asylum in the US significantly increased since the launch of former president Felipe Calderón’s War on Drugs. In 2011, roughly 1.6 million Mexicans were displaced as a result of violence and conflict. Legal scholar J. Anna Cabot finds that in 2013, Mexicans made up the second largest group of asylum seekers in removal proceedings, which is no surprise given 98% of Mexican asylum applications are rejected by US immigration judges. Continuous internal displacement and the rise of forced Mexican migration opens up a space to explore if there will be coordination between Biden and AMLO to address organised crime, violence and corruption.

Biden has promised a return to multilateralism with a particular focus on Latin America and on addressing the roots causes of migration in Central America and violence in Mexico. How will this foreign policy agenda resonate with AMLO? While the Mexican president sought to “shake up the status quo,” he faces scrutiny for centralizing power, weakening opposition parties, militarising the nation, and taking a non-interventionist stance on regional issues.  Biden’s regional approach will entail implementing “rule of law” mechanisms, particularly on the Mexican federal police and military. Thus, at what scale will AMLO cooperate with Biden? Will their fractured stances on intervention lead to an escalation of more violence and forced migration?

What’s next?

Over the last two years, Mexico has become Trump’s extraterritorial anti-immigrant laboratory. Trump’s economic threats pressured AMLO into further militarizing its borders and deporting and criminalising the mobility of migrants across the interior of the country. It remains unclear if and how Biden and AMLO will work together to undo the policies Trump implemented at the bilateral scale and how they will manage future migration flows. The challenges brought forth by the pandemic, Biden’s lackluster resolve to dissolve the US’s robust deportation infrastructure thus far and ALMO’s failure to address systemic violence while militarising the nation implies that little transformation may occur at a bilateral scale in the upcoming years.



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