Migrant Numbers on Border Plunge as Mexico Helps U.S. to Stem Flow


    Migrant shelters with plenty of empty beds. Soup kitchens with food to spare. Soldiers patrolling intersections where migrant families once begged for spare change.

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

    The unusual scenes of relative calm flow from a flurry of actions the Biden administration has taken, such as imposing stiffer penalties for illegal border crossings, to try to reverse an enormous jump in migrants trying to reach the United States.

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

    Mexico’s strategy reflects the country’s emergence as an enforcer of United States migration policies, acting often in tandem while also taking its own steps to control the border, as its northern cities have struggled to house and feed large numbers of migrants. The harsh conditions attracted a global spotlight following a devastating fire in March at a Juárez migrant detention center that left dozens dead.

    Underscoring the easing of pressure on border cities, 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 only 80 people this month after many migrants scheduled appointments with U.S. border officials at ports of entries through a mobile app created this year.

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

    Still, Ms. Coronado and other migrant advocates warned that the lull may be short-lived as hundreds of migrants, largely from Venezuela, Haiti and Central America, continue streaming into southern Mexico on a daily basis from Guatemala with the goal of traveling north.

    “As long as the conditions in the countries of origin don’t change, as long as people continue to leave, there is going to come a point where we are going to see the borders saturated again,” said Alejandra Macías Delgadillo, director of Asylum Access Mexico, a nonprofit helping asylum seekers.

    How long the combination of U.S. and Mexican policies will keep crossings down remains to be seen, she added, but one thing is clear: “I don’t think it’s going to be permanent.”

    For now, United States authorities have registered a sharp drop in arrests of migrants for unlawful border crossings since the public health measure known as Title 42, which barred most undocumented people from entering the country, ended.

    By the end of June, migrant apprehensions had begun to creep up along some parts of the border, but were still considerably lower than in the spring. On June 29, Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector, historically one of the busiest, encountered 654 people trying to enter the United States unlawfully, down from nearly 2,000 a day in early May.

    The measures rolled out recently by the Biden administration include stiffer penalties, such as a five-year-ban on entering the United States for migrants repeatedly caught trying to enter illegally, and improvements to the app designed to streamline asylum requests.

    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 contributing to fewer border crossings.

    Beside busing and flying migrants away 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 make it to the U.S. border.

    In the city of Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, migration offices that had been set up to provide temporary permits allowing people to travel north closed.

    Mexico’s government imposed a nationwide mandate to stop issuing any documentation allowing migrants and refugees to stay in Mexico. Even permits based on humanitarian reasons were prohibited and replaced with expulsion orders giving migrants days to leave the country.

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

    Juárez, which has been a main starting point to reach the United States, is now patrolled by hundreds of Mexican soldiers, ostensibly to crack down on crime, but it also bolsters attempts to assert order after a chaotic episode this year when hundreds of migrants tried forcing their way across the border over a bridge leading to El Paso, Texas.

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

    Migrants who now find themselves deep in Mexico’s interior, stymied by all the different obstacles, are grasping for options. In Mexico City, the capital, small clusters of migrants sleep on streets surrounding a plaza in the central part of the city.

    Michael Fernando Poveda, 26, who said he left Ecuador to escape rising violence and a lack of work, sleeps in a tent left behind by a Haitian migrant who had planned to cross into the United States. Citing the new challenges of making it across the border, Mr. Poveda said, “You don’t know if you’re going to cross or if you’re going to stay or if you’re going to be deported.”

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

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

    Mexico’s more stringent approach benefits the Biden administration’s efforts to improve border control heading into next year’s presidential election in the United States.

    At the same time, according to critics of Mexico’s president like Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, the strategy insulates Mr. López Obrador from explicit questioning from Washington for domestic moves that civil liberty groups regard as anti-democratic, such as trying to hobble the nation’s election agency.

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

    More migrants who had been streaming into northern Mexican cities are finding it easier to start the asylum process because of the improvements to the app known as C.B.P. One.

    On June 30, Homeland Security announced the expansion of appointments through the app to 1,450 per day, a nearly 50 percent increase from May 12, the day Title 42 was lifted.

    In Tijuana, Enrique Lucero, manager of the city’s migration 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,” he said.

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

    In mid-June, 1,603 migrants were in U.S. Border Patrol custody in the El Paso sector, according to internal data obtained by The Times, compared with 5,000 to 6,000 daily before the end of Title 42.

    But the factors that have caused millions of migrants to leave their homes across Latin America bound for the United States, including violence and economic hardships, have not eased.

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

    In fact, along the Arizona border, illegal crossings have been rising. Border agents in the Tucson sector made 7,010 apprehensions the week that ended June 30, compared with 4,290 the week that ended June 2.

    Much farther south, the number of migrants traveling through the Darién Gap, a brutal jungle crossing linking Central and South America, has soared this year, to more than 200,000 through July 5, compared with less than 50,000 migrants during the same period last year, according to Panama’s government.

    Maureen Meyers, a vice president at the Washington Office on Latin America, who visited the Guatemala-Mexico border in mid-June, said it was too early to tell if there will be a long-term decrease in migration flows.

    She said her team had observed Mexican immigration officials busing Guatemalans and other migrants back to Guatemala, while transporting others elsewhere in Mexico.

    “There is lots of movement of people, and no one has a clear sense of what is going on,” she said.

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

    “Matamoros is not prepared for this,” said Glady Cañas, who heads a nonprofit assisting migrants in the camp. “We don’t have the resources to help them.”

    Reporting was contributed by Edyra Espriella in Matamoros, Mexico; Rocío Gallegos in Juárez, Mexico; and Juan de Dios García Davish in Tapachula, Mexico.

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