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Mexico could strong-arm Biden over Texas' immigration law SB4


The Texas immigration law SB4 remains on hold while U.S. courts decide whether it should be allowed to take effect. The law would let police in Texas arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally. It would also let Texas judges order migrants to be deported to Mexico. Mexican officials are against SB4. They say it would lead to discrimination against Mexicans in Texas, and Mexico's president says he will reject any attempt to send migrants to his country. And with immigration so contentious in the United States right now, Mexico knows it has a lot of leverage. Washington Post columnist Eduardo Porter recently wrote about this, and he's with us to share his views. Eduardo, welcome to the program.

EDUARDO PORTER: Hi. How are you?

PFEIFFER: I'm good. So from the reporting you've done on this and the conversations you've had, if this law is put into effect, do you have any indication how Mexico would react when Texas would start sending migrants to the Texas-Mexico border?

PORTER: Well, it's unclear to me what Texas can, in fact, do because Mexico has the responsibility to take in Mexicans that might be deported from Texas, but it has no obligation under any sort of law to take, say, Venezuelans or Ecuadorians or any of the people from many other nationalities that have been crossing into the United States in the last few months and years. So I don't know how Texas can, in fact, force migrants from these countries into Mexico. Mexico has said no.

PFEIFFER: So could we end up with a large pileup of people on our side of the border who were trying to get to go to the other side?

PORTER: Well, that's a possibility, yes.

PFEIFFER: So backing up a little bit, the U.S. relies to a significant degree on Mexico to help control the flow of migrants to the border. They're not all Mexican migrants. Some of them are from other Latin American or Caribbean countries or another continent. Can you explain a little more how reliant the U.S. is on Mexico to help with that control of people coming through the border?

PORTER: Enormously reliant. And basically, it all stems from the fact that all these people, all these immigrants - whether they're coming from Venezuela or Ecuador or Guatemala or, you know, Belarus, they're moving through Mexico to get to the United States. And from the Trump administration through the Biden administration, there have been efforts in Washington to, you know, enlist Mexico's help in preventing them from getting to the United States.

So what can Mexico do? Well, Mexico - the current government of President Lopez Obrador has, you know, deployed the National Guard along Mexico's northern and southern borders in order to detain or stop migrants from moving north. It has put roadblocks on highways to look at buses. It has stopped trains because many migrants move from the south of Mexico to the north of Mexico on trains. And it has, like, flown - it has flown migrants from close to the northern border back either to their own countries, repatriating them, or to the very south of Mexico just to keep them away from the U.S. border. So there's a lot of things that Mexico can do and it has done throughout the last few years.

PFEIFFER: That's cooperation of sort that Mexico is doing with U.S. policy. And I'm assuming they're getting something for that. Are we giving them money? Are we investing somehow? What's the tit for tat?

PORTER: Well, at this moment, I couldn't say that there is a kind of, like, transparent, negotiated, signed agreement that gives Mexico something in exchange. It seems to be more kind of implicit. I mean, back during the Trump administration, if you'll remember, there was a very clear transaction. Trump said, we're going to impose tariffs on Mexico if Mexico does not do our will. And so, of course, then Mexico did Trump's will. That has not been President Biden's policy. But to critics of this deal and especially to critics of the Mexican administration, there is a clear quid pro quo in that Amlo, as the Mexican president is known, will kind of help the U.S. on the migration flow if the U.S. does not become too critical of what the Mexican president wants to do.

PFEIFFER: You have described the flow of migrants like a valve that Mexico has power to control, a very helpful visual example. It's obviously a presidential election year in the U.S. It also is in Mexico. How might you expect Mexico to use that migration valve as leverage politically?

PORTER: If you speak to critics of the president in Mexico, they are concerned that its main concern will be to use this power essentially to warn off the U.S. from criticizing how he is running the Mexican election campaign. Mexico has elections in June, and the Mexican president has a preferred candidate to succeed him, Claudia Sheinbaum from his own Morena party. Critics in Mexico say that he's flouting electoral law in order to help her. And so the one hypothesis is that migration - that sending the signal that he could, like, open and close the migration valve is to basically keep the White House or anybody in Washington from making bad comments or anything about how he's managing the election campaign in Mexico.

PFEIFFER: Mexico might say, if you tick us off politically, we will open the valve.

PORTER: Exactly. Now, there's another hypothesis, which is kind of bleaker - that the Mexican president might prefer Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States.

PFEIFFER: So that connects to something else I want to ask you, which is that - you have written - and here's a quote. "Few things would hurt Biden more than an October migration surprise." What kind of surprise are you talking about? And what role do you think Mexico could play in springing that possible surprise?

PORTER: I mean, the surprise is a number. It's, say, 400,000 migrants running into Border Patrol agents, trying to get into the United States without authorization, you know, in Texas or Arizona.

PFEIFFER: An overwhelming number suddenly coming through on a single day.

PORTER: Exactly. Trump clearly understands that a chaotic, problematic border is in his political interests. The Mexican political system understands this, too. They read the papers. Everybody is aware that a problematic border come, you know, October, even September would be very bad for the Biden administration and for the president's chances of being reelected.

PFEIFFER: That's Washington Post opinion columnist Eduardo Porter. Thank you for talking with us.

PORTER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.