Biden wants border help as Mexico sees historic migrant surge

Migrants sleep on mattresses placed in the courtyard of the Casa de la Caridad Hogar del Migrante shelter, because it is at maximum capacity, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. (Victoria Razo for The Washington Post)

SAN LUIS POTOSÍ, Mexico — When President Barack Obama faced a surge of migrants at the U.S. border in 2014, he pressed Mexico to crack down. President Donald Trump did the same a few years later, threatening trade penalties if Mexico didn’t comply.

Now, President Biden is also leaning on Mexico to step up its enforcement. But this country is struggling with a migration crisis of its own, as historic numbers of asylum seekers cross its southern border. As many as 6,000 migrants a day have lined up outside government offices in southern Mexico — some seeking refuge in this country, but many others headed for the United States. That’s up to 10 times as many as in the spring.

Security forces have pulled more than 27,000 undocumented migrants off trains in the past month alone. Yet the current surge has exposed the limits of relying on Mexico as a buffer zone for the United States.

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Mexico has traditionally been the No. 1 source of U.S.-bound migrants and lacks institutions developed enough to deal with a mass influx of foreigners, analysts say. Its underfunded, notoriously corrupt immigration bureaucracy has been further hobbled by recent legal setbacks.

“Our capacities are overwhelmed, despite Mexico’s desire to do a good job,” Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena told reporters last month.

In Washington, the immigration debate focuses on the southwest U.S. border and the political liability it represents for Biden as he seeks reelection. Largely unnoticed is how much the entire migration route is under strain.

Migrant shelters in Mexico are jammed, leaving thousands of foreigners bedding down in city streets. Costa Rica declared a state of emergency last month. Senior officials in Panama have described the influx as a national security concern.

“This is not an issue of Mexico or the United States or Guatemala or Panama,” said Giovanni Lepri, the Mexico representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The region, he told The Washington Post, needs a comprehensive plan to provide asylum, jobs and safe repatriation.

While the number of arrivals reaching Mexico appears to have dipped this month, the government remains worried. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has invited leaders from 11 countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean to a meeting in the city of Palenque on Sunday to address the spike in arrivals.

Behind the surge lies a profound shift in international migration, analysts say. Until recently, the migrants reaching the U.S. border were mostly Mexicans and Central Americans. Now there’s a global outpouring of economic and political refugees funneling through Mexico.

The number of South American migrants reaching Mexico this year has surpassed the number of Central Americans for the first time since record-keeping began. Mexico went from logging fewer than 2,000 South Americans a year for most of the past decade to more than 176,000 in the first eight months of 2023. Many are traveling with families.

What’s driving the exodus? A cascade of crises: the economic and political meltdown in Venezuela, narco-violence in Ecuador, the lingering economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic. A booming migrant-smuggling industry makes the trips more accessible.

“Every country has a combination of factors,” said Tonatiuh Guillén, who headed Mexico’s immigration service in 2018 and 2019. “But the most important point is that these are populations that are being forced to move. It’s not the old model of the labor market — though there’s a bit of that.”

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The new reality is evident in the central city of San Luis Potosí, where Geraldine Estrada helps run the Charity House Migrant Shelter. Months ago, she noticed a few extra arrivals. Then more. And suddenly she was trying to squeeze 400 asylum seekers into a shelter built for 150.

She and her staff turned the conference room into a women’s dorm. They lined the basketball court with mattresses.

“We’re in a state of collapse,” she said one morning this month. “People are sleeping on pieces of cardboard, with a blanket. We have nothing more.”

Most of the migrants are from Venezuela. More than a quarter of the country’s 28 million people have fled a withering economy and government repression.

“People want to work, but the salary in Venezuela is approximately 7 dollars,” said Francisco Santander, a small-business owner.

“No, a month,” he said. “You can’t maintain your family on that.”

Desperate migrants have circumvented measures aimed at discouraging them. In January 2022, Mexico started requiring visas for Venezuelans flying into the country. Many have turned to a treacherous overland route: the Darién Gap. The 60-mile stretch of jungle, infested with snakes and prowled by criminals, is so deadly that few people ever chanced it. This year, half a million are expected to cross — more than half of them Venezuelan.

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For all the dramatic images of asylum seekers fording jungle rivers, U.S. border arrests in fiscal 2023 were down slightly from a year earlier, preliminary statistics show. What’s remarkable is the rebound in recent weeks.

A ‘bubbling up’ of migrants

The surge reflects frustration with a U.S. policy rolled out in May, when the Biden administration lifted Title 42 border policy, a pandemic-related health measure that allowed the government to expel migrants quickly. The new system grants 1,450 appointments per day to asylum seekers, allotted via the smartphone app CBP One. Those who don’t follow the rules face stiff penalties.

When the system was implemented, border arrests plunged. But demand for appointments has far outstripped supply.

“That’s why we’re seeing this bubbling up of migrants throughout Mexico,” said Ari Sawyer, a U.S. border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People are in the country, waiting and losing hope, and also running out of money, and feeling unsafe.”

Aracelis Briceño, 47, a restaurant owner, left Venezuela after gangs demanded she pay extortion. She has volunteered as a cook at the shelter in San Luis Potosí since the spring. But this month, she hung up her apron and headed for the border to try to claim asylum.

She’d tried the CBP One app. “I’ve been applying and applying and applying,” she said. “And — nothing.”

The U.N. refugee agency and the Mexican government have praised the new U.S. system for providing an orderly, legal pathway for migrants. But Estrada said it has created backups at shelters such as hers, as asylum seekers wait months to score an appointment.

“People can’t leave,” she said.

End of Title 42 changes the calculus for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border

Mexico’s National Migration Institute has reported a sharp rise in detentions, reaching around 9,000 per day during the first three weeks of September. But few are deported, due in part to legal and bureaucratic constraints. (The institute declined a request for an interview).

Some detention facilities have been closed for investigation since the spring, following a fire that killed 40 people at a center in Ciudad Juárez. Further complicating matters, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in March that migrants without legal papers may be held for no more than 36 hours.

The result: Many of those detained are bused or flown to southern Mexico and released with orders to leave the country. But there’s little follow-through.

Luis David Lugo, 23, a Venezuelan petrochemical worker and father of a 3-year-old, said he was detained several weeks ago as he tried to board a northbound freight train. Authorities sent him back to Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

“Then we began the trip again,” he said. Now he was back at the shelter in San Luis Potosí, sitting at the edge of the basketball court, in a red Chicago Bulls T-shirt. He hopes to get an appointment through CBP One and move to Florida. His goal: “to give my son a better life, education, food. The things we don’t have in my country.”

Mexico’s immigration agency is relatively small, said Guillén, its former chief. In any one location, he said, the agency “might be able to field 10 people.”

“And you have 10,000 people moving forward.”

Authorities here say they’re at least trying to deport undocumented migrants. Panama and Costa Rica typically load migrants pouring out of the Darién Gap onto buses and speed them north.

For years, Venezuela’s authoritarian government has been reluctant to accept its citizens deported from other nations. The Biden administration recently reached an agreement to send back undocumented migrants. Mexican officials are planning a similar move.

The problem, humanitarian workers say, is that Mexico has no uniform system to screen deportees to ensure they won’t be at risk upon return.

Mexico defends its efforts to deal with the flow of migrants. During the Trump administration, it allowed tens of thousands of asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as they awaited U.S. appointments. Mexico accepted a Biden proposal to deport non-Mexican migrants back across the border.

Mexico has also opened its doors to asylum seekers, with a record 150,000 petitions expected this year. With only 339 employees, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance is swamped.

The Mexican government has improved facilities for families and underage migrants detained by authorities. Yet most migrant shelters are run by religious organizations. In addition to receiving foreign migrants, they are struggling to host a growing number of Mexicans displaced by drug trafficking and other crime groups.

Estrada said she recently met with leaders of other Mexican shelters, all stretched to their limits. “Everyone cried,” she said.

Lorena Rios in Monterrey, Mexico, Gabriela Martínez in Mexico City and Marcela del Muro in San Luis Potosí contributed to this report.

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