Migrant numbers at the border plummet as Mexico helps the US stem the flow

Shelters for migrants with many empty beds. Soup kitchens with plenty of food. Soldiers patrolling intersections where migrant families once begged for change.

In Ciudad Juárez and other Mexican cities along the border, the story is much the same: Instead of surging as elected officials and immigration advocates warned, the number of migrants attempting to enter the United States has plummeted after the a pandemic-era border restriction expires in May.

The unusual scenes of relative calm stem from a flurry of actions taken by the Biden administration, such as imposing tougher penalties for illegal border crossings, to try to reverse a huge surge in migrants trying to reach the United States.

But it’s also the result of tough steps Mexico has taken to discourage migrants from massing along the border, including transporting them to places deep inside the country.

Mexico’s strategy reflects the country’s emergence as an enforcer of US migration policies, often acting in tandem and also taking its own measures to control the border, as its northern cities have struggled to house and feed large numbers of migrants . The harsh conditions attracted worldwide attention following a devastating fire in March at a Juárez migrant detention center that claimed dozens of lives.

Underscoring the easing of pressure on border towns, Mexican migration authorities in Juárez recently dismantled a tent encampment set up after the deadly fire.

The site, which opened with 240 people in May, had just 80 people this month after many migrants scheduled appointments with US border officials at ports of entry via a mobile app created this year.

Cristina Coronado, who runs a soup kitchen for migrants at the Roman Catholic cathedral in central Juárez, said shelters in the city were “half-empty” after migrants were able to get appointments across the border or were taken by Mexican authorities in other parts of the country.

However, Ms Coronado and other migrant advocates have warned that the reprieve could be short-lived as hundreds of migrants, largely from Venezuela, Haiti and Central America, continue to flow into southern Mexico from Guatemala daily with the goal to travel north.

“As long as conditions in the countries of origin don’t change, as long as people keep leaving, there will come a point where we see borders become saturated again,” said Alejandra Macías Delgadillo, director of Asylum Access Mexico, a nonprofit that helps asylum seekers.

How long the combination of US and Mexican policies will hold the crossings remains to be seen, he added, but one thing is clear: “I don’t think it will be permanent.”

For now, US authorities have seen a sharp drop in arrests of migrants for illegal border crossings since the end of the public health measure known as Title 42, which barred most undocumented people from entering the country. .

By the end of June, migrant worries had begun to creep in along parts of the border, but they were still significantly lower than in the spring. On June 29, Border Patrol officers in the El Paso sector, historically one of its busiest, encountered 654 people seeking to enter the United States illegally, down from nearly 2,000 a day in early May.

Measures recently introduced by the Biden administration include tougher penalties, such as a five-year ban on entering the United States for migrants caught repeatedly attempting to enter illegally, and improvements to the app designed to streamline asylum claims.

But Mexico’s government, which had already agreed to accept non-Mexican migrants deported from the United States before the pandemic-era restriction expired, has also taken steps to help reduce the number of border crossings.

In addition to transporting and flying migrants from northern Mexico to other parts of the country, including Chiapas, the country’s southernmost state, the government has introduced bureaucratic hurdles for migrants trying to reach the US border.

In the town of Tapachula on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, immigration offices that had been set up to provide temporary permits that would allow people to travel north Closed.

The government of Mexico has enforced nationwide mandate to stop issuing any documentation that allows migrants and refugees to stay in Mexico. The permits based on humanitarian grounds were also prohibited and replaced with deportation orders giving migrants days to leave the country.

Officials soon reversed or relaxed these measures, but migrant groups say their effect has been clear. “I think the logic is to get them out,” said Eunice Rendón, coordinator of Agenda Migrante, a coalition of migrant advocacy groups. “Let them get discouraged and go back.”

Juárez, which was a major jumping-off point for reaching the United States, is now patrolled by hundreds of Mexican soldiers, ostensibly to crack down on crime, but it’s also bolstering attempts to assert order after a chaotic episode this year, when hundreds of migrants were tried forcing their way across the border on a bridge leading to El Paso, Texas.

The large concentration of soldiers has created a clear disincentive for migrants, said Tonatiuh Guillén, former head of Mexico’s migration agency. “No options in Mexico, that’s the message,” Guillén said, noting how the soldiers have created a “threatening environment” for migrants.

Migrants who are now deep in the Mexican interior, hampered by all the different obstacles, are grabbing at options. In Mexico City, the capital, small groups of migrants sleep in the streets surrounding a plaza in the central part of the city.

Michael Fernando Poveda, 26, who said he left Ecuador to escape growing violence and joblessness, sleeps in a tent left behind by a Haitian migrant who planned to enter the United States. Citing the new challenges of crossing the border, Mr Poveda said: ‘You don’t know if you will cross or if you will stay or if you will be deported.’

Despite the challenges many migrants to Mexico face, the country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has sought to reframe the narrative, recently telling reporters that Mexico was “leading by example” by adopting humanitarian policies.

But political expediency can also be part of the equation, analysts say.

Mexico’s tougher approach benefits the Biden administration’s efforts to improve border control ahead of next year’s US presidential election.

At the same time, according to critics of the Mexican president such as Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, the strategy isolates López Obrador from explicit scrutiny by Washington for domestic moves that civil liberties groups consider undemocratic, such as trying to obstruct the national electoral agency.

A spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Migration Institute said officials were unavailable to comment.

More and more migrants who have flocked to northern Mexico’s cities are finding it easier to initiate the asylum process thanks to improvements to the app known as CBP One.

On June 30, Homeland Security announced it was expanding appointments through the app to 1,450 per day, a nearly 50% increase from May 12, the day Title 42 was revoked.

In Tijuana, Enrique Lucero, director of the city’s immigration office, said migrants in shelters and hotels are using the app rather than trying to climb over the double-layered steel wall that separates the city from San Diego.

“People are getting appointments faster than before because more are available,” she said.

The situation in Tijuana, added Lucero, was “completely calm” and there was “a lot of space for migrants in shelters”.

As of mid-June, 1,603 migrants were in US Border Patrol custody in the El Paso sector, according to internal data obtained by the Times, up from 5,000-6,000 per day before Title 42 ended.

But the factors that drove millions of migrants from their homes across Latin America to the United States, including violence and economic hardship, have not abated.

Diego Piña Lopez, associate director of Casa Alitas, a network of shelters in Tucson, Arizona, said the shelters were receiving large numbers of Mexican asylum seekers. Many had been displaced by the violence gripping states like Michoacán and Guerrero, where drug cartels have taken control of villages and towns.

In fact, illegal crossings have increased along the Arizona border. Border agents in the Tucson sector made 7,010 arrests in the week ending June 30, up from 4,290 in the week ending June 2.

Far to the south, the number of migrants crossing the Darien Gap, a brutal jungle crossing linking Central and South America, has soared this year to more than 200,000 as of July 5, compared with fewer than 50,000 in the same time last year, according to the government of Panama.

Maureen Meyers, vice chair of the Washington office for Latin America, who visited the Guatemala-Mexico border in mid-June, said it was too early to tell whether there would be a long-term decrease in migration flows.

He said his team had observed Mexican immigration officials taking Guatemalans and other migrants back to Guatemala, while transporting others elsewhere in Mexico.

“There’s a lot of movement of people and nobody has a clear idea of ​​what’s going on,” he said.

While major border cities like Juárez and Tijuana are relatively calm, pressure points persist. In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, where shelters are scarce, migrants remain in an open encampment.

“Matamoros is not prepared for this,” said Glady Cañas, who heads a non-profit organization that assists migrants in the camp. “We don’t have the resources to help them.”

The reporting was provided by Edyra Espriella in Matamoros, Mexico; Rocío Gallegos in Juarez, Mexico; and Juan de Dios Garcia Davish in Tapachula, Mexico.