TREND: Mexico is currently grasping with how to navigate its new reality as a destination country for migrants and refugees, primarily from Central America, but also from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and countries in Africa and Asia. In addition to expanding the capacity of its refugee and asylum system and increasing enforcement internally and at its southern border, the López Obrador administration has resorted to short-term legal mechanisms—Humanitarian Visas, Regional Visitor Cards, and Border Worker Cards—to promote orderly and legal migration and better align these mechanisms with the incentives migrants have to come to Mexico in the first place. The latest official data reveals important trends resulting from policy changes since 2019:
- Used initially by the López Obrador administration as a short-term response to manage and provide services to irregular migrants traveling in caravans, the Humanitarian Visa grants holders a temporary legal status, the right to work and enter and exit Mexico as long as they are unable to return to their country of origin due to humanitarian concerns. In January 2019, immigration authorities issued nearly 12,000 Humanitarian Visas, chiefly in response to large flows of migrants traveling in caravans.
- However, as heightened migrant flows persisted and U.S. pressure increased, the López Obrador administration restricted the issuance of Humanitarian Visas. In January 2020, Mexico witnessed the arrival of another migrant caravan but implemented an enforcement-first approach and issued about 2,000 Humanitarian visas, an 82-percent decline compared to January 2019.
- The downward trend in visa issuances continued throughout the first five months of 2020, compounded by the overall drop in irregular migration into Mexico and later regional mobility restrictions due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. From January to May 2019—prior to the implementation of the U.S.-Mexico migration cooperation agreement—Mexican immigration authorities issued approximately 25,000 humanitarian visas, compared to 8,000 visas during the same period in 2020, or about 67 percent less.
- The citizenship composition of Humanitarian Visa recipients has changed significantly, reflecting a similar shift in asylum flows. Of the 25,000 visas issued by Mexican authorities from January to May 2019, Hondurans represented 61 percent, followed by Salvadorans (15 percent), and Guatemalans (10 percent). In contrast, from January to May 2020, Haitians accounted for 25 percent of the 8,000 visa recipients, while Hondurans made up 20 percent, nearly the same share as Venezuelans (19 percent) and Cubans (18 percent).
- In April 2019, the López Obrador administration expanded the eligibility of the Regional Visitor Card, previously only available to Guatemalans and Belizeans, to include Salvadorans and Hondurans. Card holders are granted permission to enter Mexico for up to seven days at a time, but without employment authorization, and their travel is constrained to five southern states: Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo. Issuances of Regional Visitor Cards have also followed a downward trend. In the first five months of 2019, Mexico granted approximately 24,000 cards, but this fell by 32 percent to only 16,000 cards issued between January to May 2020.
- The Regional Visitor Card is primarily used by Guatemalans, who either have family members or visit Mexico for tourism or commercial purposes. In fact, of the 94,000 cards issued from January 2019 to May 2020, Guatemalans made up 90 percent of recipients. Despite expanding access to Salvadorans and Hondurans, these two groups combined represented only 4 percent and Belizeans accounted for the remaining 6 percent.
- The Border Worker Card grants Guatemalan and Belizean citizens access to employment in the same southern states, and the López Obrador administration has suggested it will expand eligibility to Salvadoran and Honduran citizens. From January to May 2019, immigration authorities issued approximately 4,000 cards, twice the number issued in same period in 2020. Guatemalans accounted for 99 percent of all card holders, and 97 percent of them worked in agriculture.
TAKEAWAY: Mexico’s existing framework provides flexibility to expand legal pathways with the potential to promote and encourage lawful regional migration but requires balancing its migration enforcement and humanitarian protection regimes. Undoubtedly, increased enforcement and restricted regional mobility due to the ongoing pandemic have decreased flows dramatically. But as the composition of these migrant flows becomes more diverse in national origin and skill-level, Mexican policymakers can find ways for the country to benefit from migrants’ social and economic contributions by taking into account their target populations and tailoring legal pathways to their specific needs and skills, for example, by easing the geographical restrictions of the Border Worker Card to allow migrants to work in areas with significant labor market demand.
* Spotlight by Andrea Tanco & Ariel Ruiz, Associate Policy Analysts at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI). MPI seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions. Twitter: @migrationpolicy