MEXICO – A record number of asylum seekers seek refuge in Mexico – some after arriving at the southwestern border of the United States in the hope of finding refuge under President Biden, but knocking a closed door.
In March, the Mexican government received asylum claims from more than 9,000 people, the highest monthly tally on record, officials said. And they predicted that the growing demand, evident over the past month, would continue, reaching perhaps a total of 90,000 asylum claims by the end of the year, which would also be a record high.
The surge in asylum claims in Mexico partly reflects turmoil at the U.S. border, where the Biden administration struggles to cope with a flare-up in illegal migration and has prevented many asylum seekers from presenting their cases to immigration officials.
Mexico has also become an increasingly attractive destination for refugees, who have generally found asylum easier to obtain in Mexico than in the United States. Some were also drawn to the opportunity to reunite with family and friends, as well as the job opportunities and a degree of security they lacked at home.
The large increase has put additional stress on humanitarian groups and on the Mexican government, which has been under pressure from Washington to do more to curb the flow of migrants north from Central America and elsewhere.
“Huge sums are coming,” said Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Silva, general coordinator of the Mexican government agency responsible for processing asylum claims, of the workload. “With the staff that we have, we have to deal with a number that is growing and growing and continuing to grow.”
For decades, Mexico has essentially been a gateway for people in Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the world who sought to reach the United States. But in recent years, Mexico has become a more attractive destination for migrants.
Mr Trump has accelerated this process with aggressive efforts to restrict legal and illegal immigration, including strategies to deter asylum seekers by making it more difficult for them to obtain refuge. Among those efforts was a widely criticized policy called Migration Protection Protocols, or MPP, which forced asylum seekers in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in U.S. courts.
During Mr. Trump’s tenure, the number of people seeking asylum in Mexico skyrocketed to more than 70,400 in 2019 from around 14,600 in 2017, according to the Mexican government. In the midst of the pandemic and a drastic slowing global migration, the number of asylum seekers fell to around 41,200 last year. But in recent months, the volume has grown sharply again.
This peak coincided with a wave of migrants on the southwestern border of the United States, in part due to the economic misery that worsened during the pandemic, two devastating hurricanes that Central American shipwrecks and lasting hope, sometimes encouraged by smugglers, that the new administration in Washington would ease restrictions at the border.
But many migrants and refugees have arrived in Mexico only to find that accessing the United States is not as easy as they have been led to believe.
Mr Biden has started to end the MPP program and allow people under its aegis to enter the United States, as well as a growing number of families crossing illegally. are detained, processed and released in the United States
But U.S. officials continued to use an emergency rule, implemented by the Trump administration, to quickly deport single adults, who made up the majority of those stopped at the border. Migrant advocates say use of the rule has prevented many asylum seekers from seeking refuge.
Once again, a tent camp has arisen near an official crossing in Tijuana, sheltering migrants hoping to have a chance to present their case to US authorities.
Ingrid, a Guatemalan asylum seeker awaiting asylum in Mexico, said she sought refuge in Mexico last month after being deported from the United States.
She had crossed to Arizona with two of her children, aged 6 and 14, with the help of a smuggler, but was detained and returned to Mexico without being allowed to plead her case, which she said was based about abuse she suffered in a relationship.
“I was devastated,” said Ingrid, who asked that only her first name be used out of fear for her safety.
Now living in a migrant shelter in Mexico City, she said she still hopes to reach the United States one day. In the meantime, she said, Mexico was a suitable alternative.
“If I returned to Guatemala, I would be afraid for my life and that of my children,” she said. “Here, I feel free.”
Officials and lawyers say a growing number of asylum seekers are already arriving with the intention of settling in Mexico. Most asylum claims in Mexico are made in the southern border states, which suggests that people submit their claims upon arrival.
“What we hear frequently now is: ‘If they offer me something to stay, I will stay in Mexico,’ said Brenda Ochoa, director of the Fray Matías Human Rights Center, a migrant advocacy group in the southern town of Tapachula. “It’s not a second option.”
Some refugees inclined to stay in Mexico seek to reunite with relatives and friends who arrived earlier and are putting down roots, said Ramírez, director of the Mexican Asylum Agency, the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees, or Comar.
Some are also drawn to Mexico’s huge demand for low-income labor, a need the government has voiced.
“If they compare the type of life they have in their own country, at the end of the day, they have it better here,” in Mexico, Ramírez said.
And the asylum approval rate in the country is high: in the first three months of this year it reached 73%, while 7% received other types of humanitarian protection.
Hondurans – fleeing a toxic mix of economic distress, government corruption and ineptitude, violence and natural disasters – are by far the largest asylum-seeker population in Mexico since 2019. Petition Approval Rates Honduran deals in the first three months of this year reached 86 percent.
“We don’t know if this is their first or second intention” to stay in Mexico, Ramírez said of the asylum seekers. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”
The historic number of people making new asylum claims in March came despite the Mexican government decision last month to close the country’s southern border to non-essential trafficking. The continued flow of refugees arriving from the south has further highlighted the extreme porosity of this border and, according to migration experts, the weakness of efforts to suppress immigration in Mexico.
“These are people who clearly don’t want to go home,” said Cris Ramón, a Washington-based immigration consultant. “And they’re going to find a mechanism to stay in Mexico or the United States.”
Oscar Lopez and Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting