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Mexico has already deported thousands of Central Americans who are fleeing their homelands because of a century of U.S. interventionist policies

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. As we all know by now, Trump imposed a tariff on imports from Mexico to force that nation to curb immigrants passing through their country into the United States. What effect did that really have on immigrants who are seeking asylum? The nature of immigration across the US’s southern border has changed dramatically in this century. People are not just seeking a better life, or better lives, but are now seeking asylum from violence and oppression. Most of them registering at the border, many of them registering at the border, are then incarcerated by this nation. Tariffs may indeed affect Mexico’s policies toward Central American immigrants passing through Mexico, but the reality is that Mexico has already deported record numbers of people. But can tariffs against Mexico really stop people fleeing violence in their homelands? A violence that one could put at the doorstep of the last hundred years of US policy that’s backed civil wars, lopsided trade agreements, and deportations of gang members, thousands of them to Central America. To discuss all this today with us is Rachel Schmidtke, Program Associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Rachel Schmidtke, welcome. Good to have you here at The Real News.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: So I have to start here with this question. I mean, I’m wondering when you heard that these tariffs are being imposed at 5 percent, and maybe working themselves up to 25 percent on Mexico to stop the flow of immigrants across the southern border, what was your reaction? I mean, just as somebody who’s been involved in this for a while. I mean, in terms of what you thought this meant for immigrants, but also just as a policy to try to affect what’s going on.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Well, I have to say, I think that mixing tariffs with migration–They don’t, they don’t mix. They’re two separate issues and I think that President Trump has repeatedly said that he believes that Mexico is “doing nothing” or not doing enough to, sort of, stop the flows of immigrants coming through Mexico to the United States. And I find this to be a quite punitive measure that seems to be more all stick and no carrot. Unfortunately, I think that it’s somewhat misguided, the decision to place tariffs on Mexico.

MARC STEINER: So two things. A– Talk a bit about what Mexico has already done. I think one of the things that gets missed a lot in the news is the role in what Mexico’s done especially under Obrador and before to, kind of, curb immigration, deal with immigration. So talk a bit about what their policy is now and what this change would mean.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Yes. So, I think, again, the notion that Mexico is doing nothing is incorrect. If you look at the enforcement numbers starting from January of this year until the most recent month of May, the numbers of deportations has increased drastically from a little less than 9,000 in January to now over 15,000 in May. And so, we see a trend of a Mexico acquiescing to in some ways US pressure, and upping their enforcement capacity. And so, I’m not sure that, you know, placing tariffs or threatening Mexico with these types of measures is really going to do much, given that Mexico is already cooperating to a certain degree. I think the other issue is that how do you begin to define, you know, how much enforcement is really enough enforcement given Mexico’s institutional and political challenges, particularly with Mexico’s National Migration Institute? They’ve had to fire quite a lot of–I’ll call them INM– INM officials and as well, you know, resources are not where they need to be in order to deport, I think, the number of people that President Trump would like. And so, I think a conversation about what is realistic in terms of enforcement needs to happen. And I think that Mexico has already shown that they’re a willing partner and they’re willing to come to the table and have that discussion, but I think to expect, you know, every single migrant to be deported from Mexico’s southern border is unrealistic and I think it’s also impractical and unnecessary.

MARC STEINER: The pieces I’ve seen you’ve written before for The Hill and other places and have co-authored, were talking about, kind of, policy alternatives and how to approach policy. Talk a bit about that. I mean, if you were sitting there at this moment, saying, okay, there is a crisis. There are people who are fleeing their countries and we, the United States, have been intimately involved in Central America for the last hundred years. In many ways, it had fueled this. We can talk about that if we have time, but so, talk about what you would be saying at this moment to affect policy that might make a difference.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Sure. Well, I think we have to look at policy in the short, medium, and long-term. And not just policy from a US perspective, but also from a regional perspective. This is becoming a regional issue where Mexico is an increasingly important player. And so, how does the US also align itself with Mexico to work together to implement policies? I think in the short-term, yes. Enforcement is something that does need to happen, given the sheer amount of numbers of people that are coming. I think neither the US systems, nor the Mexican systems can absorb that many people right now. So yes, agreeing on some sort of enforcement in the short-term is important. I think in the medium-term, reforming–Well, actually in the short-term again for the US, reforming immediately our asylum system and the way that we adjudicate asylum claims is essential, given that there are so many people waiting at the border even to just get in and make that claim, and that’s creating backlogs in the United States. The United States is now sending, you know, migrants back to Mexico to wait in Mexico for this. I think an immediate solution is enforcement, also more resources devoted to reforming the asylum system at the border, and increasing more immigration judges. In the medium-term, I think that creating a system in which more Central Americans are able to apply to short-term temporary work opportunities that allow for more cyclical migration, can mean that the demand for labor is met, but the Central Americans are able to return back to their home countries. And so, it creates a system where there’s more orderly migration, there’s more legal migration, and we are, as the United States and as Mexico, able to control and screen who is actually coming into our country. That takes the power out of the hands of smugglers who frankly, right now, are having a large say in who gets to cross over the border or not. And I think in the long-term, the solution is, of course, investing in development, investing in these root causes of migration. I think moving beyond just, you know, throwing money at the problem, but really looking at targeted ways to develop the region, looking at the issue of governance. Those things will do a lot in the long-term to lower, I think, these enormous rates of migration that we’re seeing right now.

MARC STEINER: Going back to something I’ve been thinking about a great deal and you mentioned at the top of the comments you just made, which is the question about enforcement. When we use words like enforcement, I mean, sometimes it seems to me that really, kind of, obfuscates the enormity of the problem, and also obfuscates the root of the problem. That’s what’s going on here, why people are fleeing the border, and seeking asylum, stopping at the border to seek asylum, not necessarily coming through the desert. I mean, so we’re facing something very different, so maybe, what does the notion of enforcement even mean in that context?

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Mhmm. Yeah. I mean, I think enforcement is not a silver bullet for such an enormous and complex problem, right? I mean, I think the idea of simply detaining and deporting people– in the short-term, in a two-month span, maybe that will work. But in the long-term, people, as you mentioned, are fleeing because of very desperate, very dire circumstances, and they’re going to try and come into Mexico and United States by any means necessary. And so, to continue using enforcement as the end-all, be-all option, I think is a very short-sighted strategy. So enforcement, again, can be part of a component to ensure that perhaps migrants who have a criminal record, for example, who will maybe have ties to gang affiliation, etc. that they’re deported quickly. Or, people who cross undocumented into the border and are unwilling to comply with the laws of the receiving country–Sure, you know, enforcement has a place there, but it is not a long-term solution to this phenomenon, unfortunately.

MARC STEINER: So, you know, you talked about gang members a moment ago. I mean, one of the things that seems to me that in order to really get our hands around this conversation in the United States especially, is to understand the roots of this. I mean, when we talk about people coming across the border who are gang members, and I’ve met some of these young people coming in who have a gang tattoos. They live here in our community here in Baltimore, where we’re broadcasting from, but many of those young people are actually fleeing those gangs and fleeing the violence gangs have perpetrated, gangs that really were created in many ways by our policies. Starting with Reagan, sending people back who were gang members, sending people to Central America, they created this national problem in the wake of the end of all the civil wars. I mean, that’s something we don’t wrestle with in terms of, if we don’t see that history, how can we even figure out how to address what comes next?

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Yes, absolutely. And I think that we’re very quick, you know, currently in this climate to, sort of, look at what is the immediate problem and not zoom out to a larger picture of what has caused the, what have our policies in the United States done to influence, you know, or in some ways cause this problem? I think that we’re facing a similar situation now where we’re quick to implement or want to implement quick-fixes or short-term solutions without looking at what those long-term consequences could be. I think in terms of the gangs, you know, it’s something that is quite endemic in Central America, but it is also not the only reason why people flee there. There are people that are leaving because of, again, a complicated mix of factors– whether that be food insecurity, their crops have failed, there’s a sense of hopelessness and despair in this region, governance is quite weak. I mean, there are so many mix of factors that– And again, if you are a young boy and you’re being targeted by a gang member, of course, you’re going to want to seek a safe haven somewhere else. And so, I think that we need to start looking away from quick-fixes and look towards longer-term solutions, and understand the consequences of our policy solutions.

MARC STEINER: So going back to tariffs for a moment before we close. I mean, I’m curious if you are sitting in Guatemala or Honduras right now saying, we’ve got to get out of here. We have to get our children out of here. We can’t survive in this. We have to go seek asylum in the United States, maybe in Mexico, but at least in the United States, we hope. What will the Trump edict around tariffs do to change the minds of people who have to flee? How do you think that will affect anything in terms of the people who are fleeing, but also in terms of what Mexico may or may not do with those people?

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Well, in terms of people that are fleeing, I’m not sure if tariffs specifically are going to have much of an effect, but I do think that the frequent and sometimes drastic policy changes and rhetoric as well that come from the US administration, do have an influence on when migrants decide to go. I think currently there’s a climate where many people in Central America feel that it’s now or never. If I don’t cross now, then I might not get the chance later. And so, I think that another punitive measure, another harsh rhetoric about wanting to stop migrants from coming in, sends the message that– get it now before you don’t get another chance. Now, in terms of Mexico, I think tariffs, more than anything, I think that they are extremely damaging to the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the US. And so, if we want Mexico to be a cooperating partner– and in fact, Mexico is trying to be more of a leader in the situation– threatening tariffs only dissolves that relationship further, and only will create a situation where Mexico will want to retaliate in some ways against the US for this type of treatment.

MARC STEINER: And finally, Rachel, before we have to go. In the United States, we have the CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which some would argue, and I may be one of those people who would argue, that was part of the root of the problem that many people in Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala are facing because of the unequal trade agreements that we have with those countries. I mean, it seems to me that one of the things we have to address this and there’s some short-term issues that people are wrestling with, which is why Trump did a tariff even if it doesn’t work. I mean, it’s kind of a desperate act or a thoughtless act, but at any rate, if we don’t think of it in terms of long-term solutions based on the history that we have, nothing’s going to change.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: Absolutely. Yes. No. I mean, I think the long-term solutions are essential because if not, we’re going to oscillate from, you know, crisis-to-crisis-to-crisis. We have to start thinking about what are the real root causes, which I think in some ways, is this very deep-seated inequality in these countries, and people who do not have access to markets, who are left out of trade agreements. And that comes from, you know, having conversations around these larger policy issues, without bringing in people who civil society or people that are directly affected. And so, I think having a broader conversation with more stakeholders, with more voices present, is the only way to ensure that a long-term solution is actually sustainable.

MARC STEINER: Rachel Schmidtke, I wish we were writing the policy then. [laughs] Rachel is the Program Associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And Rachel, thanks so much for joining us here today on The Real News. It has been a pleasure to talk with you.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: It’s been a pleasure as well. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: Thank you for being with us. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.