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US-Mexican Border Issues

The border region between Mexico and the United States represents a unique space; it is the only global dividing line between a First and Third World country. Century old migration ties between the two nations persist due to continued economic discrepancies.

Cooperation between the United States and Mexico along the 2,000-mile common border includes state and local problem-solving mechanisms; transportation planning; and institutions to address resource, environment, and health issues. In 1993, the Border Liaison Mechanism (BLM) was established. Chaired by U.S. and Mexican consuls, the BLMs operate in "sister city" pairs and have proven to be effective means of dealing with a variety of local issues ranging from accidental violation of sovereignty by law enforcement officials and charges of mistreatment of foreign nationals to coordination of port security and cooperation in public health matters such as tuberculosis.

With nearly one million people and one billion dollars worth of commerce crossing the U.S.-Mexico border each day, coordination of border infrastructure operations and development among federal, state, and local partners on both sides of the border is critical. The multi-agency U.S.-Mexico Binational Group on Bridges and Border Crossings meets twice yearly to improve the efficiency of existing crossings and coordinate planning for new ones. The 10 U.S. and Mexican border states are active participants in these meetings.

The United States and Mexico have a history of cooperation on environmental and natural resource issues, particularly in the border area, where there are serious environmental problems caused by rapid population growth, urbanization, and industrialization. Cooperative activities between the U.S. and Mexico take place under a number of agreements such as:

  • An 1889 convention establishing the International Boundary Commission, reconstituted by the Water Treaty of 1944 as the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico (IBWC). The IBWC has settled many difficult U.S.-Mexico boundary and water problems, including the regularization of the Rio Grande near El Paso through the 1967 Chamizal settlement. The IBWC determines and accounts for national ownership of international waters, builds and operates water conservation and flood control projects, and constructs and maintains boundary markers on the land boundary and on international bridges. In recent years, the IBWC has worked to resolve longstanding border sanitation problems, to monitor the quantity and quality of border waters, and to address water delivery and sedimentation problems of the Colorado River.
  • The 1983 La Paz Agreement to protect and improve the border environment and Border 2012, a 10-year, binational, results-oriented environmental program for the U.S.-Mexico border region. The Border 2012 Program is the latest multi-year, binational planning effort to be implemented under the La Paz Agreement and succeeds Border XXI, a five-year program that ended in 2000.
  • A November 1993 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, establishing the North American Development Bank (NADBank) and the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) under the auspices of NAFTA, in order to address border environmental problems. The NADBank uses capital and grant funds contributed by Mexico and the U.S. to help finance border environmental infrastructure projects certified by the BECC. The BECC works with local communities to develop and certify environmental infrastructure projects, such as wastewater treatment plants, drinking water systems, and solid waste disposal facilities. Prior to 2005, both institutions had separate Boards of Directors. In an effort to improve efficiency, the separate Boards were merged into a single entity, which held its first meeting in June 2006.
  • The 1993 North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), creating the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation under NAFTA by the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, to improve enforcement of environmental laws and to address common environmental concerns.
  • A series of agreements on border health (since 1942), wildlife and migratory birds (since 1936), national parks, forests, marine and atmospheric resources. In July 2000, the U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement to establish a binational Border Health Commission. The Border Health Commission meets annually and is made up of the federal secretaries of health, the 10 border states' chief health officers, and prominent community health professionals from both countries. A representative from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services manages the U.S. Section in El Paso, Texas.

The United States and Mexico have also cooperated on telecommunications services in the border area for more than 50 years. Currently, there are 39 bilateral agreements that govern shared use of the radio spectrum. When the United States completed the transition to digital television in 2009, a high percentage of Mexican border cities did the same well ahead of Mexico's deadline to complete the transition by 2021. Recent border agreements also cover mobile broadband services such as BlackBerrys, smartphones and similar devices. The High Level Consultative Commission on Telecommunications continues to serve as the primary bilateral arena for both governments to promote growth in the sector and to ensure compatible services in the border area. Under this mechanism, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement to improve cross-border public security communications in the border area in 2009.

The United States is giving Mexico 10 days to stop illegal migrants from heading north to the U.S. border, or the country will be slapped with tariffs on all of its products. The announcement was made in a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump 30 May 2019. “On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP,” Trump tweeted. Until “the illegal immigration problem is remedied” tariffs will continue to rise monthly, going as high as 25% by Oct. 1. “Mexico’s passive cooperation in allowing this mass incursion constitutes an emergency and extraordinary threat to the national security and economy of the United States,” Trump said in a subsequent statement. “Mexico has very strong immigration laws and could easily halt the illegal flow of migrants, including by returning them to their home countries.”

In a statement issued by the White House, Trump said the tariff would increase to 10% on July 1, 15% on Aug. 1, 20% on Sept. 1 and to 25% on Oct. 1. "Mexico’s passive cooperation in allowing this mass incursion constitutes an emergency and extraordinary threat to the national security and economy of the United States," Trump said in the statement. The acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, told reporters there is “an organized smuggling effort” involving commercial bus lines controlled by criminal organizations “to move 100,000 people to our country every four weeks.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: "Social problems are not resolved with taxes or coercive measures...People don't leave their homelands for pleasure but out of necessity. I don't lack courage, I'm not a coward or timid, but act out of principles. I believe in politics which, among other things, was invented to avoid confrontation and war." Andres Lopez Obrador sent a conciliatory letter to Trump: "I express to you that I don't want confrontation [...] I propose deepening our dialogue, to look for other alternatives to the migration problem," he wrote.

Background - Safe Transit Country

Trump's tactic of pressuring Mexico to restrin refugees traveling to the US continued a decade old policy. Starting under the Obama administration, the US began pressuring Mexico to increase its own immigration enforcement apparatus. In 2011, Obama DHS staffer Alan Bersin, pointed to a trend that had begun at the beginning of the decade: migration from Mexico was at historic lows, but the number of people traveling from Central America into Mexico had grown significantly.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was the first universal treaty governing the situation of refugees in a general manner. The Convention establishes an objective regime of refugee protection which is independent of the will of the receiving State Party. According to the Convention, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion ... "The concept of a “transit country” is less easy to define than it may initially appear to be.28 Very broadly, a transit country is a country that refugees and migrants pass through along the way to their preferred country of asylum – it may be located anywhere between the country of origin and the country of destination.

The most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution. This protection has found expression in the principle of non-refoulement [pronounced non-refoolman] The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of refugees, which, in Article 33(1), provides that: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Article 22(8) of the American Human Rights Convention adopted in November 1969 provides that: “In no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country regardless of whether or not it is his country of origin, if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated because of his race, nationality, religion, social status or political opinions.”

The “right to asylum” under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was differentiated from the principle of non-refoulement because it did not oblige States to actually grant asylum to refugees (this stands in distinction to the obligation of non-refoulement, which is absolute). This implies that States had undertaken an undisputed obligation to refrain from the forced return of refugees, but did not have a corresponding obligation to provide durable solutions for their situation.

The so-called Migration Protection Protocols, better known as President Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy, was announced by former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in December 2018 and began to be implemented in January 2019. "Aliens trying to trick the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates. Instead, they will wait for an immigration court decision while they are in Mexico," wrote Nielsen at the time. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP were implemented in an attempt to curtail the so-called catch-and-release system.

The 9th Circuit Appeals Court judges were worried about the fact that DHS agents do not directly ask asylum seekers if they are afraid of being at risk, a frequent omission which could be a law violation. 9th Circuit Court Judge Paul Watford, who expressed a critical opinion towards Trump's policy, recalled that the U.S. government has an obligation not to send applicants to a place where they may be persecuted. He issued an opinion Tuesday saying that it is "reasonable to assume that at least some of the asylum seekers affected by the policy will have a legitimate fear of being persecuted in Mexico."

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 07 May 2019 the likelihood of substantial injury upon return to Mexico remained even though the chance of harm “is reduced somewhat by the Mexican government’s commitment to honor its international law obligations and to grant humanitarian status and work permits to individuals returned under the MPP [Migrant Protection Protocol].”

People are ready to pay huge sums and take big risks to attain their dream of a better life, including job opportunities and the possibility of a decent education for their children. Television and modern communications have transcended international borders, giving rise to new frustrations, desires and anger among the have-nots.

In Europe, refugees can apply for asylum if they have not come from a safe transit country. European contries have embraced the notion of the so-called “safe third country,” in which governments refuse even to examine the asylum request of someone who has previously transited a country considered to be “safe”. The asylum-seeker is simply returned to the “safe” transit country. For this concept to work, from UNHCR’s perspective, you have to be able to prove that this person would indeed have access to proper asylum procedures and protection in the country to which he or she is being returned. In Germany, for example, any person who has transited through a country considered safe has no right to asylum. He or she is sent back to that country.



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