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migrants The number of northbound migrants soared in February.

Mexico intensifies efforts to turn back Central American migrants bound for US

More than 100,000 attempted to enter the US last month

Mexico has ramped up enforcement against Central American migrants traveling through the country to apply for asylum in the United States.

The number of migrants fleeing countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to head north has risen dramatically since United States President Joe Biden took office on January 20.

Between January 25 and February 16, immigration agents supported by the military and police detained about 1,200 migrants – including more than 300 children – who were traveling on trains in six southern and central states as well as Mexico City, according to the National Immigration Institute (INM). Migrants who enter Mexico irregularly are subject to detention and deportation even if their intention is to travel to the northern border to seek asylum in the U.S.

Government data compiled by the Reuters news agency shows that more than 800 migrants were also detained in recent weeks while traveling north through Mexico in buses and tractor-trailers.

The wave of arrests represents an escalation of the federal government’s efforts to control migration. Almost two years ago, Mexico deployed the National Guard to detain migrants after former U.S. president Donald Trump threatened to impose blanket tariffs on Mexican goods if more wasn’t done to stem the flow. However, enforcement against migrants was less strict in the final months of the Trump administration.

Migrants aboard freight train
Migrants aboard the freight train nicknamed ‘The Beast’ in a photo from 2018. AP/Eduardo Verdugo

The federal government is now concerned that moves by the Biden administration to make it easier for migrants to apply for asylum are encouraging the flow of Central Americans through Mexico.

Violent crime and severe economic problems continue to afflict Northern Triangle Central American nations – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – and now migrants from those countries can realistically believe that they have a better chance of entering the United States, if they make it to the border, due to the change in the U.S. government.

The Biden administration has begun allowing unaccompanied minors to enter the United States to lodge asylum claims whereas they had previously been promptly deported, and rolled back the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy that forced migrants to wait in dangerous border cities while their asylum cases were processed.

Unlike the 2019 National Guard deployment, the recent train raids were not carried out at the behest of the United States, according to the INM. The institute told Reuters that it had not made a large number of detentions in recent years because fewer migrants were using trains – known collectively as La Bestia, or The Beast – to travel to the Mexico-U.S. border.

Tonatiuh Guillén, a former INM chief who quit in 2019 after Mexico struck an agreement with the United States to increase enforcement against undocumented migrants, told the news agency that the frequency and scale of the recent arrests were unprecedented. While raids were previously occasional they are now commonplace, he said.

For its part, the Biden administration has said that it hasn’t held discussions with Mexico about how the government deploys security forces within its own territory.

Whatever the motive of the crackdown, “Mexico is playing the role of stopping immigration to the United States,” said Sergio Martín, head of operations in Mexico for the humanitarian/medical NGO Doctors Without Borders.

That remark echoes observations during the Trump administration when many people opined that Mexico had turned itself into the former president’s long-promised border wall by stepping up enforcement against migrants.

Human rights groups have voiced concerns about increased enforcement in Mexico and Central American countries, saying that security forces often violate migrants’ right to apply for asylum.

Although data shows that arrests of migrants in Mexico have risen since Biden took office, many have made it to the U.S. border. United States border agents conducted 100,441 apprehensions or expulsions of migrants at the border in February, Reuters reported, noting that it was the highest monthly total since a 2019 border crisis precipitated by the arrival of several large migrant caravans.

The number represents a 28% increase over January and 37,000 more than in February of last year.

Just eight months ago, during a visit to the White House by President López Obrador, Trump praised Mexico for helping to create “record numbers in a positive sense on our southern border.”

Now, with a U.S. president with more sympathetic views toward migrants, there is a real possibility that there will be large, ongoing arrivals at Mexico’s southern and northern borders, a situation that would pose significant challenges to authorities on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Source: Reuters (en) 

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