Mexico vows to fight Texas' bid to deport immigrants under SB4

MEXICO CITY — Bowing to years of U.S. pressure to help slow migration, Mexico draws the line at Texas law.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador condemned the move as “harsh”. He says his government will reject any attempt by Texas officials to send migrants back to Mexico.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena said the government would put “increased vigilance and controls” at border crossings to prevent such removals if the law goes into effect. This raises fears of conflicts between Mexicans and Texas state or local agencies over attempted deportations.

“We are not going to accept returns from local, state or county authorities in Texas, Mexican or non-Mexican,” he said Wednesday night.

The Biden administration and Texas officials have been at loggerheads over the Texas state law, known as SB4, which briefly went into effect on Tuesday before being blocked by a US federal appeals court.

The Texas government has argued that the record number of immigrants reaching the border has become an “invasion,” prompting unprecedented action, including arresting and deporting people who are in the country illegally.

The Biden administration says immigration is a federal responsibility and allowing states to make their own policies would cause confusion.

If the law is confirmed, it could cause the biggest political crisis at the border since 2019, when President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs if Mexico does not curb immigration. But unlike that, the Mexican government is on the same page as the White House, saying immigration deals can only be made by national governments — not states.

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In Mexico, migration is not nearly as controversial as in the United States. Yet the Texas law struck a nerve.

Mexico's political parties have closed ranks around the government, with leading candidates in the June 2 presidential election denouncing the Texas law. “We have to harden our legs,” said Xóchitl Gálvez, the top opposition candidate, using a soccer expression to hold one's ground. “Because the way they treat immigrants is unacceptable.”

It's unclear how Texas will deport immigrants

Mexican officials are concerned that accepting deportees from Texas could lead to a legal free-for-all, allowing many US states to set their own immigration policies. “This will set an important precedent,” Parsena warned, “and I believe it's not good for the U.S. government either.”

Mexico also worries the law will increase discrimination against the large Mexican community in Texas. Even those who are allowed to be in the U.S. can be detained or arrested by local authorities who are uneducated in immigration law, immigration advocates say.

SB 4 was approved by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Greg Abbott (R) last year, but was quickly stalled by legal challenges. Unauthorized entry into Texas from Mexico is a felony, punishable by up to six months in prison. Those who cross the border again after being deported or denied entry can face 10 to 20 years in prison.

The law would empower Texas judges to order deportations and local law enforcement agencies to enforce them.

Texas officials have admitted they aren't sure how the process will work. They said the prisoners could be handed over to the central government for disposal. But the Department of Homeland Security has said its agents need permission from federal immigration officials to deport immigrants.

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Officials can drop migrants off at international border crossings and ask them to walk into Mexico. Barcena said the Mexican government has instructed the 11 Mexican embassies in Texas and the National Immigration Agency to “under no circumstances accept any income from local or county officials in Texas.”

“There are some border crossings, of course, and we are putting more vigilance and controls,” he said. “Because this cannot be allowed to happen.”

Donatiu Guillen, who served as head of Mexico's immigration agency in 2018 and 2019, said those deported by Texas could blend into the flow of people crossing the border and heading south. But if the government sets up filters to prevent removal by Texas, there could be “open tension in the border relationship,” with Texas pushing migrants one way and Mexico backing off.

Such filters could greatly reduce the movement of tens of thousands of people who legally cross the border every day to work, study, shop or visit relatives. “I don't see it being sustainable on the Texas or Mexican side,” Gillen said.

Mexico has become a key partner in US efforts to control the flow of migrants across the border. In 2018, the incoming López Obrador administration, in the face of pressure from Trump, agreed to allow US asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their claims were processed. More than 60,000 asylum seekers have been deported under the “Stay in Mexico” program during the Trump administration.

Trump threatened to impose steep tariffs on Mexican exports in early 2019 if Mexico did not reduce the number of migrants crossing the US border. López Obrador responded with a crackdown that included thousands of Mexican troops.

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Cooperation continued under President Biden. Mexico agreed last year to take in deportees from four countries — Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba — who entered the U.S. illegally.

Mexico says it adopted such measures for humanitarian reasons and to help its neighbors. In response, analysts say, the Biden and Trump administrations have muted their criticism of López Obrador on non-immigration matters — such as Democratic governance. The president has weakened some of the institutions that have been the bedrock of Mexico's transition to 21st-century democracy, calling them expensive and biased toward the opposition.

The Biden administration says Mexico has played a key role in reducing the number of migrants reaching the US border in recent months. The country has stepped up detention of migrants traveling on buses and has seized hopping trains and organized deportation flights to Venezuela, Cuba and Central America. But Mexican officials privately say the government's resources are strained. The migration is expected to increase as temperatures rise in the coming weeks.

López Obrador said Wednesday that he would not reveal what action Mexico would take if Texas tried to deport people across the border. But he suggested there could be retaliation: “We will not sit idly by with our arms crossed.”

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