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Migrant apprehension policies inside Mexico that lowered U.S. border numbers called ‘not sustainable’

A migrant carries a child as she and others try to cross a line formed by members of the Mexican National Guard to get to a bus in Tapachula, Mexico, December 5, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Jose Luis Gonzalez
A migrant carries a child as she and others try to cross a line formed by members of the Mexican National Guard to get to a bus in Tapachula, Mexico, in 2021.

Mexico carried out almost 360,000 migrant apprehensions in its northern region in the first three months of 2024, according to data published by the Mexican government.

Ariel Ruiz Soto, senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute, said those apprehensions have created a “revolving door” for migrants inside of Mexico, because the country is able to move people south en masse, but not detain or deport them in similar numbers.

“In the short term, it certainly is going to create significant barriers for more migrants transiting irregularly through the country to get to the United States,” said Ruiz Soto. “But Mexico doesn't have the resources.”

Of the total number of migrants that Mexico was able to detain and move south inside its own country, only about 8,000 foreign nationals were returned to their countries of origin in the same period.

“They don't have the planes,” said Ruiz Soto. “They don't have the ability to screen migrants quickly or to detain migrants at the number that they would need to be able to raise the number of deportations.”

Data published by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows that the 301,981 migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border that broke records in December plummeted to an all time low for January of 176,189 people.

Those historically low figures have persisted, with the latest data showing 189,372 encounters with migrants in March. CBP data for April and May were expected to reflect the same trend.

Mexico’s apprehensions are the primary reason for this sharp decline of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a report published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights research organization.

In May of last year, the Mexican Commissioner of the National Guard said 32,690 Mexican armed forces would be surged to the country's northern and southern borders in December 2023 to address irregular migration.

That represents the second largest deployment of any security mission by armed forces in the country for the year.

But a review of Mexico’s fiscal budgets leads Ruiz Soto to believe the country may run out of money to continue implementing the current strategy before the November elections in the U.S.

“In October or November [2023], Mexico's National Institute of migration announced that they had run out of funding to conduct deportations because of all the money they had spent on apprehensions," said Ruiz Soto. “And that was with relatively lower levels of migrant arrivals. The fact that in three months Mexico has apprehended 360,000 would suggest that they're going to run out of money more quickly this year.”

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador doubled down on the current strategy. They issued a joint statement highlighting a “continued commitment to strengthening bilateral and regional cooperation” to the present effort to reduce irregular migration.

The administrations shared plans to add new enforcement measures at railways, buses and in airports, as well as increase the number of repatriation flights returning migrants to their home countries.

However, Ruiz Soto said the current strategy may create more issues in the long-term.

“These policies, while they may be effective in the short term, could have consequences that actually raise the pressures and boiling points that raise issues for migrants and for local communities,” said Ruiz Soto, explaining that the apprehensions have created a more dangerous transit for migrants. He also expects that Mexico will start to see pressure from both the public and organized crime groups.

“That is not sustainable over time,” said Ruiz Soto.

Both Mexico and the U.S. “pledged to advance initiatives to address the root causes of migration throughout the Western Hemisphere” in their joint statement.

The Biden administration launched several major programs to create what it calls the “shared prosperity and security” it views as necessary to decrease irregular migration.

For example, the Central America Forward program brought $5.2 billion in private investment commitments to Central America, as of March.

However, Ruiz Soto said results from long-term policies that address the root causes of migration may be a decade away or more.

“There has to be a middle option,” said Ruiz Soto. “That begins to change how immigration happens in the region now. And, to me, perhaps the most important component has to include creating more lawful pathways for how migrants come to the United States, and also to other countries.”

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.