By Lizbeth Diaz and Anthony Esposito MEXICO CITY/CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, July 2 (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has promised thousands of jobs to migrants waiting on the northern border for U.S. asylum, but some employers are refusing to hire them unless the government screens for potential criminals.
Lopez Obrador said on Friday he would make up to 40,000 jobs available along the border to migrants while they wait in Mexico for the results of their U.S. asylum claims under an agreement forged with U.S. President Donald Trump. Many asylum claimants are Central American nationals fleeing violence and poverty in their respective countries of origin, often at the hands of criminal groups like Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13.
Employers in Mexico are urging the government to conduct background checks and regularize their immigration status to make sure gang members are not among the job seekers. But Luis Hernandez, president of manufacturing industry chamber INDEX in the border city of Tijuana, said companies run the risk of falling out of compliance with existing international agreements unless background checks are run on prospective employees.
Many Mexican firms are certified by the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which requires companies to only employ individuals whose backgrounds have been verified, said Hernandez. "We don't want to take the risk that the federal government comes to audit us, the state government audits us and because we hired someone, we're not following the rules," he said.
Lopez Obrador's measure, which will rely on an agreement with the manufacturing industry's maquiladoras - or assembly plants - aims to ease pressure on overcrowded shelters on the border and comes as public support for the migrants is waning. The factories, which import raw materials from the United States and ship assembled products back across the border duty free, exported billions worth of goods last year.
Migration experts say concerns about gang members traveling north in migrant caravans bring to mind Trump's rhetoric about violent Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States. Oscar Misael Hernandez, a migration specialist at Mexico's Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said he thinks the chances of criminals entering Lopez Obrador's program are slim to none.
"It's so illogical to think that people asking for asylum have criminal records, since they know they'll face double scrutiny" in the United States and Mexico, he said. According to INDEX, more than 60,000 jobs need filling in the manufacturing and exporting industries in Mexico's northern border states. In part, this is due to lower wages than just across the border in the United States.
Central American migrants sent back to Mexico to await U.S. asylum claims could provide a fix to the labor shortages. Still, businesses say applicants must meet legal requirements and pass security checks.
"Employers are worried ... because there's no register for undocumented migrants to see if they've got criminal records in their homelands, if they're members of the Mara Salvatrucha or some other gang," said Eduardo Ramos, president of employers' association Coparmex in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
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