Mexico diverted money from development to contain migration

FILE - In this July 18, 2019 file photo, migrants sit in a bus that was organized by the Mexican government, which will take them from an immigration center in the border city of Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Mexico, after they were returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – Under pressure from the United States to reduce migration, the Mexican government diverted money from a fund intended to spur regional development to instead renovate immigration detention centers and bus migrants away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to information obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador designated more than $4 million from the Mexico Fund last year to immigration containment purposes.

In late May 2019, President Donald Trump threatened devastating tariffs on all Mexican imports unless Mexico acted to contain the flow of migrants crossing its territory. Furious negotiations produced an agreement that averted the crisis. Mexico deployed its newly created National Guard to intercept migrants and agreed to expand a program that allowed the U.S. to make asylum seekers from other countries wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in U.S. courts.

Unnoticed at the time was an adjustment the Mexican government made in June 2019 to its Mexico Fund, which supported development projects in Central America and the Caribbean. In a decree, the government said the fund “required a new vision that allows for better use of resources” and that it could now also be used for the “registration, control and tracking” of immigration flows and equipping detention centers.

Asked about changing the objectives of the fund known officially as the Infrastructure Fund for Mesoamerican and Caribbean Countries and whether it was done under pressure from the U.S. government, the Foreign Affairs Ministry initially provided only a list of improvements made to migrant detention centers. It also said the amount diverted was “very small,” less than 4% of the total fund.

Hours after the story was published Tuesday, however, the ministry said in a letter to AP that “our immigration policy, like our foreign policy, is determined exclusively by the Mexican government ... not by the United States nor any other country.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, who resigned as head of Mexico’s immigration agency a week after the agreement with the U.S., said the diversion of the development funds was a “dramatic turnaround” from the fund’s mission and illustrates what happened last year: “a recomposition of the immigration vision completely oriented toward containment that leaves us without tools and resources to design development strategies, which had been the government’s objective.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had campaigned on a different, more humanitarian approach to immigration. Mexico would support countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle that were the principal senders of migrants with the goal of making migration an option, not a necessity. During the first three months of his presidency Mexico issued 15,000 humanitarian visas to Central Americans traveling in caravans.