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Will Mexico’s New President Use the Border as Leverage?
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Will Mexico’s New President Use the Border as Leverage?

A look at Claudia Sheinbaum’s possible immigration policies.

Mexico's newly elected president Claudia Sheinbaum speaking at the 2024 closing campaign event in Mexico City on May 29, 2024. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Late in the evening of June 2, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo stormed to victory in the Mexican presidential election, becoming the first woman elected to that office.

On the surface, she could hardly have asked for better circumstances. While we don’t have a final count yet, Sheinbaum appears poised to take nearly 60 percent of the vote—trouncing her nearest rival by more than 30 points—and gain a congressional supermajority. She will assume office with the blessing of her popular predecessor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and with virtually all levers of government under the control of her party, Morena.

Despite these advantages, Sheinbaum will need to quickly make difficult decisions to address several key issues. Of these, perhaps none will be as consequential—both for her country and the United States—as what to do with Mexico’s immigration policies.

Sheinbaum’s vague immigration platform.

In the leadup to her victory, Sheinbaum tried to clarify her distinctions from AMLO, who has been the face of the Mexican left for nearly a quarter-century. But on immigration, among other issues, she appears poised to continue his policies rather than develop her own.

Like her soon-to-be predecessor, Sheinbaum sees poverty as the root cause of hemispheric migration. During presidential debates, she even stressed that if the U.S. wants Mexico’s help in managing migration flows, it’ll have to provide economic assistance to the region.

In her official platform, Sheinbaum describes this approach as a “paradigm shift” and further proposes establishing a permanent and multilateral cooperative mechanism for states to better address the root causes of migration. She has also suggested that she will reform the Mexican National Institute of Migration to clarify the services it provides.

But when pressed on what Mexico could do to address migration within its territory, Sheinbaum has been harder to read. In an interview with Bloomberg in April, she offered only vague references to developing Mexico’s southern states to create jobs for Mexicans and migrants alike. She again insisted that the ultimate responsibility for controlling migration lies with the United States—since that is “where migrants want to go”—and reiterated her claim that economically investing in Central American countries is the best way to do so.

Given her lack of clarity, some experts have reasonably concluded that she will not deviate significantly from AMLO’s immigration policies. Instead, Sheinbaums’s challenge will primarily come from having to govern in his shadow without having defined proposals of her own.

Mexico’s recent migration trends.

Since February of this year, monthly encounters with migrants at the southern border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have declined by about 5 percent, from roughly 190,000 to 180,000. While these numbers are still historically high and this drop may seem modest, it is important to note that migration typically spikes during the spring. Over the past three years, there has been an average 51 percent increase in encounters during the same period.

This decline can largely be attributed to actions the Mexican government began taking in 2024 to slow migration flows. Mexican migrant apprehension data has shown a marked uptick in the first months of 2024. In January 2023, Mexican migration authorities recorded apprehending only 37,360 migrants. Flash forward a year later, and that number soared to 120,005.

Many of these apprehended migrants have been put on buses destined for Mexico’s south so as to make it more difficult for them to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. AMLO also has a program in place that pays Venezuelan migrants $110 a month to stay in their country instead. He has expressed interest in expanding the program to include Colombians and Ecuadorians.

The results of this crackdown are almost certainly unsustainable in the long run. Mexico is not repatriating the migrants, which means that, for now, it is likely that tens of thousands of people are still in southern Mexico and will eventually find their way north. 

Mexican cooperation is critical for enacting our preferred border policies. For example, President Joe Biden’s recent executive order limiting asylum claims at the border will require Mexico to accept the return of even more non-Mexican nationals into their territory. Despite a widespread perception that Mexico will simply bend to U.S. will over the border, recent history has shown that Mexico understands the sway immigration holds in U.S. domestic politics and has used this to its advantage.

Thus far, AMLO has been able to use immigration as a means of leverage over both the Biden and the Trump administrations. With both, AMLO has offered and withheld cooperation on immigration enforcement as a means of gaining concessions in other areas. The timing of his latest crackdown and of his potentially unpopular payment program will compound the difficulties Sheinbaum is set to face with her U.S. counterpart.

For Biden and Sheinbaum, the next months will be crucial.

Regardless of who wins in the U.S. election, the Biden administration will have to contend with Sheinbaum for a short but critical period of time. Following a change to Mexican law, Sheinbaum will now be inaugurated on October 1. This gives her roughly a month where the balance of power will be skewed in her favor, as she will have few domestic liabilities and Biden will be anxious to ensure border crossings remain low ahead of November.

However, U.S.-bound migration is likely to begin to spike around that time. If the migrants currently waiting in southern Mexico have not already made their way north by then, the prospects of harsher migrant policies under a second Trump term will create a significant incentive for them to try to get to the U.S. however they can. It’s probable that Sheinbaum will have to contend with a large wave of migration in her first months in office.

And again, during his presidency, AMLO proved skilled at using immigration as a bargaining chip in U.S.-Mexico relations. His relationship with the Biden administration has rested on insisting the U.S. refrain from commenting upon Mexico’s democratic backsliding and demanding that the U.S. soften its policy toward the leftist dictatorships of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. 

Sheinbaum shares these sympathies. She’s likely to push Biden for even greater increases in U.S. aid to migrants in the region, the creation of labor pathways, and more significant changes in the posture of U.S. foreign policy in exchange for keeping migration numbers low before election day—if Mexico is still capable of doing so.

The long-term effects of Sheinbaum’s immigration policy.

After this initial period, though, immigration will become a far more politically perilous issue for Sheinbaum. If Biden wins, migrant flows will no longer play as salient a role as they have in his bilateral calculations, shifting priorities to less favorable areas such as trade, security, and the reemergence of consolidated political power in Mexico. In this case, Sheinbaum may find it tempting to make immigration an issue again using the template AMLO has set out.

If Trump wins, Sheinbaum will have to deal with a set of radical border proposals from his administration that will likely once again inflame domestic pressure to demonstrate independence from U.S. influence. AMLO mitigated these tensions by establishing a good personal relationship with Trump over their shared bombastic and populist tendencies—traits that Sheinbaum (a former climate scientist) lacks. A protracted dispute with the Trump administration would cause upheaval and uncertainty at the border, with migrants paying the ultimate cost.

Domestically, immigration also seems likely to become a liability for Sheinbaum. Right-wing populism has not emerged as a potent force in Mexico largely due to AMLO’s conservative positioning on many social issues. The more socially progressive Sheinbaum will not enjoy this sort of ideological cover. Moreover, other Latin American countries that have received an influx of migrants have begun to show growing signs of anti-migrant sentiments. Indeed, prior to the Mexican election, false videos circulated claiming that Sheinbaum supported allowing migrants to claim unoccupied homes in Mexico, demonstrating that Sheinbaum’s opponents are aware of this potential vulnerability. 

Sheinbaum will assume office with a limited window of time to determine Mexico’s posture on the U.S.-Mexico border. At best, she will be able to come to an understanding over the border with her U.S. counterpart that is not subject to the short-term, transactional pressures of election years. 

If she is not careful, however, she risks proving that the outcomes of her administration will be determined more by the decisions made by her predecessor than by her own policies. The next U.S. administration may feel some relief over not having to deal with the personalistic and frequently outrageous style of AMLO. But Sheinbaum will have a harder time stepping away from AMLO’s policies than he would have. Her approach to the border will be the first test of her presidency and the new stage of U.S.-Mexico relations.

Gil Guerra is an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center and the 2024 Rising Expert in Latin America with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.