President Obama pressed Mexico’s president on Tuesday to work alongside the U.S. government to prevent a new surge of illegal immigrants.
Obama is looking for the help after taking executive action that will offer legal status and work permits to millions of people in the United States, many of them from Mexico.
That has sparked fears that a new wave of immigrants will seek to cross the border. A similar wave sparked a full-bore crisis in Washington last summer.
In a White House meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Obama said the Mexican government had committed to help “send a very clear message” that the executive action does not cover new immigrants.
The new legal status would only apply to those who entered the country before 2010.
Peña Nieto pledged that Mexico would “be doing everything it can” to prevent “misinformation or abuses — especially of the organized crime groups, groups that are doing human trafficking.”
Officials with the departments of State and Homeland Security said that part of that initiative would be a new campaign of radio and television public service announcements airing in Mexico and other Latin American countries explaining the limits of the new program.
Obama also promised a new emphasis on border security.
“We’re also going to be much more aggressive at the border in ensuring that people come through the system legally,” Obama said.
For Mexico, there’s significant incentive to help support the president’s new immigration action.
Some two-thirds of those eligible for the deferred action program are Mexican, and the deportation protections and work permits should allow Mexican citizens to access higher education and better paying jobs.
That, in turn, could increase remittances, which represented $22.4 billion in the Mexican economy in 2012, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
“But the biggest reason this is celebrated by the Mexican government is they feel a responsibility to protect their citizens abroad,” said Chris Wilson, who leads the study of U.S.-Mexico border affairs at the Wilson Center. “When Mexican citizens are in the U.S. without immigration papers, they’re vulnerable. They don’t have the same access to the police, to public services.”
And by discouraging new immigration to the U.S., the Mexican government can keep more of its best and brightest inside its own borders.
In addition to cooperating on the public relations campaign, Peña Nieto said he would work to “maintain greater control of the southern border” crossed by many of the Salvadorian, Guatemalan and Honduran children who later made their way to the United States.
Professionalizing Mexico’s “notoriously porous and unmanaged” southern border with new biometric and database equipment — in large part provided by the U.S. — had a huge impact on stemming the tide of children migrants, according to Wilson.
“The biggest thing that has actually changed the number of Central Americans flowing through Mexico is Mexico’s own enforcement efforts,” Wilson said.
Obama also pressed the Mexican leader to ramp up patrolling of “La Bestia,” a network of freight trains that illegal immigrants regularly utilized to enter the United States.
“We've worked closely with the Peña Nieto administration to enforce tighter border controls along their southern border and try to shut down the convenience of that transportation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The White House says there are signs that the efforts already underway have paid dividends in stopping the flow of illegal immigration. Experts worried that the decline in child migration seen after the administration scrambled resources to the border and Central American countries this summer might have only been due to the intense summer heat.
“There was a lot of fear and concern numbers would increase this past fall,” Wilson said. “That didn’t happen. So there’s some sense that at least part of that decline was because of government efforts, not just seasonal change.”
But while the president was pressuring Mexico to step up enforcement efforts, Peña Nieto said he was also looking to bolster Obama’s immigration action in another way, by making it easier for Mexicans in the U.S. illegally to qualify for the program.
The Mexican president told Obama that his government was ready to offer “support” to its citizens living in the U.S. who are looking to apply for deferred status. That will include a new initiative by which Mexican consulates will provide their citizens living in the U.S. birth certificates without requiring a trip back to Mexico.
Peña Nieto also said he would lobby Obama to change regulations so that the Department of Homeland Security would accept “Matrícula Consular” cards as part of the application process.
The identification cards, issued by Mexican consulates and accepted by some states as photo ID, show how long an individual has been living abroad, and could help many Mexicans establish they had entered the country before the cutoff date. But their use is controversial, and Republican lawmakers have offered amendments that would bar financial institutions from accepting the cards.
The U.S. government does accept the card as official documentation for the current deferred action program for children, but Citizenship and Immigration Services has not yet developed its final guidance.