MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico is flying migrants south away from the U.S. border and busing new arrivals away from its boundary with Guatemala to relieve pressure on its border cities.
In the week since Washington dropped pandemic-era restrictions on seeking asylum at its border, U.S. authorities report a dramatic drop in illegal crossing attempts. In Mexico, officials are generally trying to keep migrants south away from that border, a strategy that could reduce crossing temporarily, but experts say is not sustainable.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported Friday that in the week since the policy change, Border Patrol averaged 4,000 encounters a day with people crossing between ports of entry. That was down dramatically from the more than 10,000 daily average immediately before.
Between the migrants who rushed to cross the border in the days before the U.S. policy change and Mexico's efforts to move others to the country's interior, shelters in northern border cities currently find themselves below capacity.
In southern Mexico, however, shelters for migrants are full and the government is busing hundreds of migrants more than 200 miles north to relieve pressure in Tapachula near Guatemala. The government has also said it deployed hundreds of additional National Guard troops to the south last week.
On Friday night Mexico's immigration agency was offering migrants camped in the center of Mexico City — most of them Haitians — to fly them to Huixtla, a city near Tapachula, to lodge them and expedite the processing of documents, said Alma Rubí Pérez, a representative of the immigration agency in the country's capital.
Segismundo Doguín, Mexico's top immigration official in the border state of Tamaulipas, across from Texas, said last week that the government would fly as many migrants away from border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros as necessary.
The transfers were "lateral movements to other parts of the country" where there were not so many migrants, Doguín said. He called them "voluntary humanitarian transfers."
The Associated Press confirmed Mexican flights from Matamoros, Reynosa and Piedras Negras carrying migrants to the interior over the past week. A Mexican federal official, who was not authorized to speak publicly but agreed to discuss the matter if not quoted by name, said approximately 300 migrants were being transferred south each day.
Among them were at least some of the 1,100 migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba that the U.S. returned to Mexico in the week since the policy change.
"So the northern part of the migrant route is emptied out a bit, but the southern and middle parts remain extremely full and filling up all the time," said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight and a close observer of the border at WOLA, a Washington-based human rights organization. "Obviously, that's an equilibrium that can't hold for very long."
Mexico has moved migrants south in the past when there was concern about northern border cities' capacity, but this time there are additional factors.
While the country's shelters for migrants in the south are full, Mexico's National Immigration Institute has closed its smaller migrant detention centers around the country and has undertaken a review of its large ones after 40 migrants died in a fire at a small detention facility in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in March.
The federal official said Mexico's largest immigration detention centers are mostly empty. Two other federal officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Friday that "Siglo XXI," Mexico's largest detention center, was empty.
Tonatiuh Guillén, former head of Mexico's National Immigration Institute, said Mexico's actions are contradictory — on one hand telling the United States it will contain migrants in the south, but on the other detaining fewer.
One morning this week, several hundred migrants waited on the outskirts of the southern city of Tapachula for government buses that would carry them to Tuxtla Gutierrez some 230 miles north.
Guillén said the document Mexico is issuing now to some migrants in Tuxtla Gutierrez — an expulsion order that gives migrants days or a couple of weeks to leave the country — does not give them other options, making it harder for them to seek international protection.
Edwin Flores of Guatemala had been trying to get to the U.S. on his own, but when he heard about the government buses from Tapachula he decided to give it a try.
"They haven't told us exactly what permit they're going to give us, only that we have to continue the paperwork process there in Tuxtla Gutierrez," Flores said. Other migrants reported arriving there, but not receiving any document.
"We have heard on the news about all the changes to the law they have made, and the massive deportations from the United States," Flores said. But it didn't change his plans, "because the goal is to arrive and see for yourself what is happening."
He said he wanted to get an appointment with U.S. authorities to make his case for asylum. He said he was a private security guard in Guatemala and gangs tried to recruit him as their eyes in the street.
On Wednesday, the United Nations refugee agency in Mexico said it was worried about the pressure on migrant shelters in southern Mexico and Mexico City. "In addition to the people arriving from the south, some shelters have already received Venezuelans deported from the U.S," the agency said via Twitter.
A Venezuelan, who gave only his first name, Pedro, to avoid repercussions, said this week that he had entered the U.S. illegally last week just before the policy change, but was returned back to Mexico at Piedras Negras.
"They put us on a bus, gave us a snack and took us to the airport," said the 43-year-old, who had previously obtained legal residency in Mexico. He spoke from a migrant shelter known as "The 72" in Tenosique near the Guatemalan border. "They left us in an industrial area of Villahermosa. There they let us go and I came here defeated."
Amid all of the movement, migrants are easy targets. Gangs have kidnapped them from the streets of border cities and entire busloads in north-central Mexico.
This week, a busload of migrants disappeared near the border of San Luis Potosi and Nuevo Leon states. The migrants said a drug cartel abducted them when their bus stopped at a gas station. They had been travelling from the southern state of Chiapas.
Bus company officials first reported the abduction on Tuesday, and told local media they had received demands for $1,500 apiece to release the migrants.
In the days after their abduction, 49 were found — Hondurans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Salvadorans and Brazilians among them — but authorities weren't entirely sure how many of them had been on the bus to begin with.
"In whose hands are the people migrating?" asked Alejandra Conde, who works at "The 72" migrant shelter in Tenosique, one of the largest in southeast Mexico. It's like "a Machiavellian strategy between authorities and organized crime."
Clemente reported from Tapachula, Mexico. Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.