Mexico’s tactic to cut immigration to the US: grind migrants down

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico — VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico (AP) — “Here again.”

Yeneska García’s face fell as she said it, and she pressed her head into her hands.

Since the flight crisis in Venezuela in January, the 23-year-old had gone through the The Darien Gap jungle separates Colombia and Panamabarely survived being kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and waited months for an asylum deal with the United States that never came. She finally crossed the US-Mexico border in May, after which US authorities deported her.

Now she was back in southern Mexico, after Mexican immigration had taken her by bus to sweltering Villahermosa and dropped her off on the street.

“I would rather cross the Darien Gap 10,000 times than Mexico,” García said, sitting in a migrant shelter.

She was holding a wrinkled resealable bag containing her Venezuelan ID, an inhaler and an apple – her few remaining possessions.

Driven by mounting U.S. pressure to block millions of vulnerable people moving north but without the means to deport them, Mexican authorities are employing a simple but harsh tactic: exhausting migrants until they give up.

That means migrants here remain in limbo while authorities round them up across the country and dump them in the southern Mexican cities of Villahermosa and Tapachula. Some have been kicked back as many as six times.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Monday that the policy protects migrants.

“We care a lot about keeping migrants in the southeast because the crossing to the north is very risky,” López Obrador said, responding to a question from The Associated Press during his daily briefing.

But these measures have forced migrants, including pregnant women and children, into even more precarious situations. That will probably worsen under President Joe Biden’s new asylum restrictions, analysts say.

Mexico’s actions explain the drop in arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped 40% from a record high in December and continued through the spring. That coincided with an increase in the number of migrants entering Mexico without legal permission, according to data from the country’s immigration agency. U.S. officials especially praise Mexican vigilance around rail yards and highway checkpoints.

“Mexico is the wall,” said Josue Martínez, a psychologist at Villahermosa’s only migrant shelter, Peace Oasis of the Holy Spirit Amparito, which braced for a group of people under Biden’s benchmark to halt the asylum process if U.S. officials believe so the southern border is overwhelmed.

The small shelter has been in turmoil since the Mexican government began pushing back people two years ago. Last month it housed 528 people, compared to 85 in May 2022.

“What are we going to do if more people arrive?” Martinez said. “Every time the United States does something to fortify the northern border, we automatically know that there are going to be crowds of people coming to Villahermosa.”

Migrants here walk or take buses north to Mexico City, where they can ask for help an appointment to apply for asylum through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection app, CBP One. But most never make it far enough north for the app’s location requirement.

There are checkpoints on southern Mexican highways. Armed soldiers remove migrants from buses and arrest those walking along roads and in the surrounding mountains. Of the 20 migrants interviewed by the AP, all said they had been extorted by law enforcement or Mexican migration officials to continue their journey. After distributing large amounts two or three times, families were left with nothing. They were then taken by bus back south, where most were left on the streets.

Mexican authorities call the temporary detentions “humanitarian rescue operations.”

But Venezuelan Keilly Bolaños say there is nothing human about them. She and her four children have been sent to southern Mexico six times. The 25-year-old single mother wants asylum so her 4-year-old daughter can receive treatment for leukemia, not available to her in Venezuela.

Days earlier, she was captured in the northern state of Chihuahua, where she said members of the military beat her in front of her crying children and then loaded them onto a bus for the two-day trip to Villahermosa.

“How can you run when you have four children? That’s not possible,” Bolaños said.

The family slept on cardboard boxes outside Villahermosa’s bus station with other migrants. Bolaños’ legs were still covered in bruises. Still, she planned to make a seventh swing north. She has nowhere else to go.

“I know that one day all this struggle will be worth it,” she added.

The Mexican tactic appears to be a way to appease the US, and that is what happened Latin America put under pressure countries to help slow migration while failing to overhaul their own immigration system, which most Americans agree is broken. The next president of Panama has done just that promised to block passage through the Darien Gap, while Biden subsequently softened criticism of El Salvador’s president he reduced migration.

When Biden announced his new restrictions last week, he said he had “dramatically” scaled back migration to the border “because of the settlement I reached with President (López) Obrador.” He said he also planned to cooperate incoming president Claudia Sheinbaum on border issues.

But Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, said such measures are only a short-term solution that does not root causes of migration.

“They say this is a regional challenge that we all have to face together, and that’s true,” Shifter said. “The problem is, if the US can’t get its own house in order, it sends a message to other governments asking, ‘Why should we work with them if the US itself can’t deal with the issue? to deal with?'”

Some asylum seekers said they were willing to give up their “American dream” but could not leave because they could no longer access their consulate or had run out of money.

After being taken off a bus, a group of migrants begged authorities to help them return to Venezuela, shortly before being sent back south.

‘We just want to go to the embassy in Mexico City. To go back to Venezuela,” 30-year-old Fabiana Bellizar told officials after returning from northern Mexico a day earlier. “We don’t want to be here anymore.”

The next morning they drove the same route.

Others said they would try to find work and a place to sleep in the city before moving on.

López Obrador said on Monday that work is being offered to migrants in the south, but the lucky few are facing precarious conditions. One migrant was paid $25 a day for twelve hours of work under the scorching sun on a mango farm. Another said employers tried to force her into sex work.

Others are forced to take more dangerous routes and into the arms of the mafia kidnapping migrants.

At the first sign of flashing lights, 27-year-old Honduran Alexander Amador ducked behind a tree, seeking cover in the shadows that covered the road between the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

Amador and his two companions had already been walking for ten hours and ran into the jungle to escape authorities who tried to arrest them along the highway. After returning to southern Mexico twice by bus, it was the only thing the Hondurans could think of to move on.

But they were afraid, both of Mexican law enforcement and of the cartels. Over the past year, security has increased in southern Mexican states such as Tabasco and Chiapas has spiraled as cartels battle for control about lucrative migrant routes.

‘You can’t trust anyone here. Everything is a danger to you,” Amador said, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and walking into the darkness.


Associated Press journalist María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.