Mexico’s Tactic to Restrict Immigration to the U.S.: Crush Migrants

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

As she said this, Yeneska García’s face hardened and she put her head in her hands.

From running away crisis in Venezuela in January, the 23-year-old wandered through The Darien Gap jungle separating Colombia and Panama, barely survived being kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and waited months for an asylum visit to the United States that never came. She finally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in May, but U.S. authorities expelled her.

Now she is back in southern Mexico after Mexican immigrants bused her to sweltering Villahermosa and dumped her on the street.

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

She clutched the crumpled Ziploc bag that held her Venezuelan ID card, her inhaler, and an apple – the few possessions she had left.

Venezuelan migrant Yeneska Garcia, second from left, sits with other migrants at the Amparito Oasis of the Holy Spirit Peace shelter in Villahermosa, Mexico, Friday, June 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Driven by mounting pressure from the United States to block millions of vulnerable people heading north, but lacking the resources to deport them, Mexican authorities are using a simple but harsh tactic: tormenting migrants until they give up.

That means migrants are hanging around in limbo here as authorities round them up across the country and abandon them in the southern Mexican cities of Villahermosa and Tapachula. Some were rejected as many as six times.

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

“We are very keen … to stop migrants in the southeast because it is very risky to get north,” López Obrador said, responding to a question from The Associated Press during his daily briefing.

But these moves have forced migrants, including pregnant women and children, into an even more precarious situation. The situation is likely to worsen below Analysts say President Joe Biden’s new asylum restrictions.

Mexico’s actions explain the decline in arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, which dropped by 40% from an all-time high in December and continued throughout the spring. U.S. officials mostly acknowledge that Mexico is vigilant around train stations and highway checkpoints.

Josue Martinez serves juice to migrants during lunch at the Peace Oasis of the Holy Spirit Amparito shelter in Villahermosa, Mexico, Friday, June 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

“Mexico is a wall,” said Josue Martínez, a psychologist at Villahermosa’s only migrant shelter, the Peace Oasis of the Holy Spirit Amparito, which was preparing for the influx of people under Biden’s measure to halt the processing of asylum applications if U.S. officials so decide southern border is overwhelmed.

The small shelter has been in crisis since the Mexican government began pushing people back two years ago. There were 528 people there last month, a sharp increase from 85 in May 2022.

“What will we do when even more people come?” Martínez said. “Whenever the United States does something to strengthen the northern border, we automatically know that a lot of people are coming to Villahermosa.”

Migrants eat lunch at the Amparito Oasis of Peace of the Holy Spirit shelter in Villahermosa, Mexico, Friday, June 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Migrants here walk or take buses north toward Mexico, where they can apply meeting to apply for asylum in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s CBP One application. However, most never get far enough north to meet the application’s location requirements.

Checkpoints are located on highways in southern Mexico. Armed soldiers pull migrants from buses and capture those walking on roads and nearby mountains. Of the two dozen migrants interviewed by the AP, all said law enforcement or Mexican migration officials forced them to continue their journey. After spending large sums of money two or three times, the families had nothing. They were then bussed back to the south, where most remain on the streets.

Mexican authorities call the temporary detentions “humanitarian rescues.”

But Venezuelan Kelly Bolaños says there is nothing human about them. She and her four children were deployed to southern Mexico six times. A 25-year-old single mother asks for asylum so that her 4-year-old daughter can be treated for leukemia, unavailable to her in Venezuela.

Days earlier, she had been captured in the northern state of Chihuahua, where she says soldiers beat her in front of her crying children, then loaded them onto a bus for a two-day journey to Villahermosa.

“How can you run when you have four children? You can’t,” Bolaños said.

The family slept on cardboard boxes with other migrants outside the Villahermosa bus station. Bruises still covered Bolaños’s legs. However, she planned to take the seventh step and head north. She has nowhere to go.

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

Mexico’s tactics appear to be a way to appease the United States, which has done this under pressure from Latin America nations to help slow migration without changing their own immigration system, which most Americans say is broken. The future president of Panama does promised to block the passage through the Darien Gap, while Biden later softened his criticism of El Salvador’s president limited migration.

When Biden announced the new restrictions last week, he said he had “drastically” reduced migration to the border “because of the agreement I reached with President (López) Obrador.” He said he also plans to cooperate future president Claudia Sheinbaum on border issues.

However, Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, said such measures are only a short-term solution that do not solve the problem 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 that if the United States can’t get its own house in order, it sends a signal to other governments asking, ‘Why should we cooperate with them if the United States itself can’t deal with this problem?'”

Some asylum seekers have said they are ready to give up their “American Dream” but cannot leave because they have been cut off from the consulate or run out of money.

After getting off the bus, one group of migrants pleaded with authorities to help them return to Venezuela shortly before being sent back south.

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

The next morning they started traveling the same route.

Others said they would try to find a job and a place to sleep in the city before continuing their journey.

López Obrador said on Monday that jobs are offered to immigrants in the south, but the lucky few live in precarious conditions. One migrant was paid $25 a day to work 12 hours under the scorching sun on a mango farm. Another stated that employers tried to force her into sex work.

Others are forced to take more dangerous paths and fall into the arms of the mafia looking for them kidnap migrants.

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

Amador and his two traveling companions walked for 10 hours, fleeing into the jungle to avoid authorities trying to catch them along the highway. After returning to southern Mexico by bus twice, it was the only thing the Hondurans could think about.

But they were afraid, both of Mexican law enforcement and the cartels. Last year, security in southern Mexican states such as Tabasco and Chiapas intensified as the cartels fought for control on lucrative migration routes.

“You can’t trust anyone here. Everything is dangerous for you,” Amador said, shouldering his backpack and walking into the darkness.


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