By Laura Weiss, NYU CLACS student
My research this summer has to do with social movement responses to human rights abuses that have arisen or worsened as a result of U.S.-Mexico policy. One of my case examples for my thesis will be to explore the buildup and consequences of the Southern Border Plan – and the responses by NGOs and activist groups in Mexico and the United States.
Recently, I had the opportunity to join a delegation with the American Friends Service Committee on human rights, migration and militarization in Mexico, for a portion of their two-week trip, to the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, and its outskirts, on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It was a great opportunity to see firsthand a lot of what I’ve studied on the Southern Border and connect with a group of inspiring activists, researchers, journalists and filmmakers interested in similar topics. Going to Tapachula, meeting with human rights groups, and seeing the border zones deepened and complicated my understanding of the migration situation in Southern Mexico today.
Contextualizing the Southern Border Plan
Before coming to Mexico, I’d read a lot about the Southern Border Plan, or Plan Frontera Sur. The program, with the stated intention of improving border and human security on the 541 mile border between Mexico and Guatemala, was announced shortly after the “child migrant crisis” of 2014. In the summer of 2014, 70,000 Central American children arrived at the US-Mexico border, seeking refuge from the life-threatening conditions they faced in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The program aimed to stop migrants and asylum-seekers in Mexico, before they reached the United States, and allotted funding for more migration officers, as well as new detection technologies and detention centers, with support from the United States. The plan also included methods to dissuade migrants and asylum-seekers from boarding the infamous Bestia cargo train that many traveling through Mexico have used as transportation northward – by speeding it up and inserting posts along the trail to make it more difficult to board.
The disbursement of funding has been extremely opaque, and denial hasn’t helped make it any clearer. When I was in Puebla, Mexico, in January for a course on social welfare and child migrants through NYU’s School of Social Work, both the National Migration Institute (INM) delegate in Puebla and US Embassy representatives in Mexico City denied any financial pressure or support from the US government for the plan. But the law begs to differ. The congressional appropriations for 2015 clearly show that at least $75 million was appropriated to Mexico to secure its southern borders, that in addition to the yearly budget for the US-Mexico bilateral security initiative, Plan Mérida, which has included over $2.6 billion in U.S. funding since 2008.
Meanwhile, measures to help improve services for Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries have come much more slowly than those securitizing the southern border. The US and Mexico have both defied international law that state that a person cannot be sent back to a country where they face threats to their life and person. As I wrote in an article, “Secure Borders Now, Protect People Later,” for NACLA in February, it wasn’t until January 2016 that the US government announced any sort of specific refugee program to allow Central American child migrants to remain in the country. By national security measures, however, Plan Frontera Sur seemed to work—at least in the short term. Detention and deportation rates from Mexico to Northern triangle countries increased by 40% in the year followed the passage of Plan Frontera Sur, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, more recent estimates show that the number arriving at the US-Mexico border is once again rising.
With all of this information in mind, I set off to Tapachula.