Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Cities as the frontier of migration and human rights: Mexico & Germany’s new bilateral approach

By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

Municipalities on the southern border of Mexico are facing an influx of migrants. And, while immigration is first and foremost a matter of national policy, it is at the local level where governments are dealing with the direct impacts of changing migration flows – we see this in the United States, and the situation is no different in Mexico.

The role of Mexican municipal governments in addressing the impacts of migration was the subject of a conference in Mexico City during the last week of August.  The International Forum on Municipalities and Human Rights, sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of the Interior (SEGOB) in partnership with the German Cooperation Agency GIZ, and El Colegio de La Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) marked the official launch of a new national pilot project:  “Municipios Fronterizos de Derechos Humanos” (“Border Municipalities of Human Rights”).  Supported by a joint fund created by the Mexican and German governments, the project aims to facilitate greater coordination and capacity among 23 Mexican municipalities situated on the southern border of Mexico in order to strengthen human rights protections.  These are the municipalities on the frontlines of migration, absorbing the migrants entering Mexico from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

These municipalities on Mexico’s southern border are navigating ballooning population without a corresponding increase in resources or capacity.  The individuals crossing the border to Mexico in search of better circumstances face xenophobia, discrimination, and criminalization.  Local efforts to support new migrants, where they exist, are stymied by an increasing reliance on detention and deportation to reduce the influx of migrants, as a result of national policy instituted by President Nieto, which has been linked to US influence. 

How can these municipalities take actions that recognize the dignity and humanity of the individuals entering their communities? What are localities doing in other countries that can inspire innovative action?  These were the questions animating the two day forum, which aimed to promote “exchange of national and international experiences on the advancement of human rights in municipalities and cities.”  

To generate innovative and sustainable policies, participants from Germany, Spain, Argentina, the United States, Italy, and across Mexico offered insights into ways that human rights can inform public policy at the local level, as well as the political and practical challenges implicated in these efforts.  The Mexican-German pilot program is designed to build the capacity of municipal governments to address new residents, and to create a space where they can learn from each other, collaborate, and share challenges, strategies, and experience, over the span of several years.   

Many barriers to coordinated action arose early in the convening.  The mayor of Tapachula, a “gateway to Mexico”, highlighted the practical realities that he faces in his municipality.  He noted the lack of space, housing, and services.  He explained how Tapachula has instituted emergency shelters, and started public programs to address migrant needs.  NGO and government representatives from Chiapas discussed the challenge of connecting migrant women to health services they need in an area where already hospitals already lack basic medical tools, like syringes.  Another government representative from a remote area of Chiapas spoke of the challenges of any coordination in a location where there is often no access to email.  The view that migrants in general pose a threat to security in local communities also surfaced (and was the source of contentious debate). 

These challenges are great.  But the driving idea of this transnational and intra-governmental partnership is that the hurdles are not insurmountable. 

Sitting in the room, as a US citizen, it was impossible not to see the parallels to the situation on our own southern border. In the US, we are clearly not doing all we can do, locally or nationally.  National policy stands as a blueprint for how not to act.   (US detentions and deportations were recently denounced by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights) And, while some U.S. cities and counties are mounting a resistance to the US federal government’s approach to immigration enforcement, there are also growing numbers of jurisdictions adopting anti-sanctuary policies.  Xenophobia permeates media coverage as well as legal and policy discussions on how to address migration flow. This is true in both the US and Mexico. 

Yet, being in this space where stakeholders from academia, civil society, municipal and the federal governments are hungry to advance human rights, it was hard not to feel some positivity.  The interest of the municipal government participants (85% of audience) in collaborating to make improvements was palpable.  Repeatedly speakers demonstrated strong interest and desire for new strategies and solutions - and positive examples of municipalities absorbing migrants in an inclusive way that promotes human rights did emerge

A speaker from Nuremberg, Germany, discussed the provision of social services to migrants in a city (including subsidies to support jobs for low-skill workers and started welcome centers).  We learned too about efforts in Catalonia to promote integration.  And the county executive from Santa Clara, California discussed the County’s role bringing the first lawsuit against President Trump’s effort to take federal funding away from sanctuary jurisdictions as an example of how local governments can stand up to protect the rights of local communities.  He also discussed Santa Clara’s more proactive efforts to support immigrant and migrant community members through coordinated services and outreach, as well as funding to support legal representation in cases of immigration detention.  Local officials and NGO representatives from Comitán, Mexico talked about efforts to connect migrant women to services, and foster social integration. 

This convening and the municipal pilot project itself are encouraging first steps to empower Mexican municipal actors to take joint, positive action.  It will be interesting to see how the project unfolds and what strategies emerge.  The idea of the pilot project is that it can ultimately be replicated in other municipalities, and in relation to other issues.  Yet, how the collaboration of 23 municipalities on this politically charged issue will translate into action in Mexico’s thousands of municipalities remains to be seen.  There are the day-day challenges that the local authorities face.  There is the tension between localities seeking to foster inclusion, and the harsh immigration policies deployed by the federal government.  There was only cursory mention of the seeming disconnect between development-oriented policies like the pilot project, focused on governance, and simultaneous efforts to “secure” the border, which in effect return many individuals to deplorable circumstances in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (“the Northern Triangle”).  Yet aggressive deportation policies have devastating human impact, and they must be reckoned with to make any sustainable improvements in border communities. 

Notably, the human rights impacts of returning migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to their home countries was the focus of an Inter-American hearing that took place just one week later, on  September 6th, during its most recent period of sessions.  The video is available here.  (Notably, the sessions included two hearings on the US, on September 7th and the US State Department was in attendance). 

[Author’s Note on the IACHR:  For those who are watching US engagement with the Commission, the IACHR recently announced that there will be hearings on the United States and Canada from November 29th-December 7th in Washington, DC.  Hearing and working meeting requests can be submitted until Wednesday, October 4th, at this link: or through the IACHR’s website:]

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