Any initial hope that Mexico had about President-elect Donald Trump being more moderate than candidate Donald Trump seems to have been short-lived.
After witnessing his hawkish Cabinet picks and listening to his recent soundbites about deportation, Mexico is bracing for a new U.S. government that will be led by a man who has promised to crack down on immigrants and oust millions of undocumented “criminals.”
For people in Mexico who work with immigrants and deportees, Trump’s pledge to deport up to 3 million people “immediately” has been a cause for scramble.
“The community is terrified. But our job is to remind them that terror paralyzes us and doesn’t allow us to think straight,” says Yolanda Varona, founder and director of the Tijuana-based organization DREAMer Moms. She said her group will continue to fight for immigrants’ rights, but is “also preparing to receive them in case they get deported.”
The first challenge will be housing. “We have a big problem at the border right now with the wave of Haitians, Africans, Central Americans and even Mexicans. The immigrant shelters are at a 100 percent capacity,” Varona said.
Then comes the issue of resettlement. How do you get people back to the far-flung Mexican cities, towns and villages that they left to move to the U.S. in the first place?
Mexican schools will also have to brace for what could be a sudden increase in enrollment. If Trump cancels President Obama’s Deferred Action plan (DACA), Mexico would receive hundreds of thousands of young people who are currently studying in the U.S.
“We’ve had seminars on this issue with other organization leaders and we are talking to Mexico’s Ministry of Education to plan for how [deported students] could continue their studies in places like Tijuana and Mexico City,” Varona said.
But like with most crises, there’s also opportunity.
First of all, it’s forcing the Mexican government to deal with deportation in a way it has never done before. Historically, the government hasn’t really had an efficient plan for dealing with Mexican deportees. Instead, it has largely left the problem to non-profit organizations, businesses, and local volunteer groups in border cities like Tijuana.
For example, under the previous administration of President Felipe Calderon, the Mexican government implemented an aid program that amounted to only 41 pesos ($3) per deportee.
Trump is forcing Mexico to start getting serious about the issue. President Enrique Peña Nieto is already working on a plan to offer deportees a three-month medicaid plan and additional resources to return home. It’s part of a greater effort by the government to team up with business leaders to create new employment opportunities for deported Mexicans.
Surprisingly, it could be in many businesses’ best interests. Over the years many deportees have been recruited by call centers in border cities. And the possible deportation of DREAMers could provide Mexico with an influx of skilled labor. A reverse “brain drain,” or fuga de cerebros as it’s known in Mexico.
“Many [DREAMers] speak two languages. They are young professionals. They could change the deportee prototype. They could be a blessing because they are active people, they bring new ideas with them and could be very productive for our community.”- Yolanda Varona
Some analysts are trying to put the issue in perspective by saying Trump’s deportation plan is really nothing new; it’s what previous U.S. governments have already done—only on an accelerated timeline.
“I don’t understand why the media is so fixated on Trump’s deportation plans. According to Department of Homeland security data, some 3.5 million Mexicans were removed from 1994 to 2014,” Rafael Alarcon, an immigration expert at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte research center, told me. “So basically what Trump’s proposing already happened.”
He notes that the Obama administration deported more than 2 million Mexicans over eight years, and that Mexico has withstood previous moments of massive deportation raids. In the 1930s the U.S. government deported tens of thousands of Mexican-American families, and in the 1950s U.S. authorities launched “Operation Wetback” to deport tens of thousands of Mexicans.
Some Mexicans fear that a massive repatriation of people Trump calls “criminals” could provide muscle for Mexican organized crime. In 2010, the then-Mayor of Ciudad Juárez asked U.S. authorities to stop deporting former inmates through the city’s border, because he said they were being recruited by local drug gangs.
But Mexico shouldn’t fear deportation of dangerous people, Alarcon says. He says Trump is using the word criminals to “rally public support” for his mass roundup, but most deportees are regular, hard-working folks.
“Most of the people the government defines as criminals are undocumented immigrants who have been stopped at police checkpoints, have committed traffic violations, and have been charged with misdemeanors,” he said. “Mexico is not about to get a massive influx of repatriated rapists and killers.”
In any event, Alarcon is skeptical that Trump will be able to remove millions of people on the 100-day timeline he set. Deportation requires the cooperation of the Mexican government, and Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior, in what seemed like a recent affront to Trump, has said the U.S. can only deport some 60,000 Mexicans per year, under international protocol.
The spokesman for Mexico’s presidency confirmed that the issue of deportations will be discussed during future bilateral meetings, but it remains to be seen how those talks will pan out. In the meantime, many Mexicans are calling on Peña Nieto to harden his stance against Trump, and engage in economic retaliation if needed.
The country has a huge challenge ahead. It will need to be firm with the United States, yet accommodating to the millions of Mexicans who will need to a readapt to a homeland that they may no longer know.