MEXICO CITY – The Mexican government’s stepped-up effort to deport Central American migrants crossing its southern border has significantly stemmed the flow of unlawful migrants entering the United States in the past few months.
US Customs and Border Protection took about 64,000 people into custody at the US-Mexico border in August, according to a US government official briefed on the latest numbers.
That figure includes arrests of people who crossed the border illegally and those who went to legal border crossings, of which CBP processes about 10,000 a month.
The August figures are about 30% lower than July’s numbers, continuing a sharp decline in illegal crossings since reaching a 13-year high of 132,900 apprehensions in May.
In eight of the last 10 years, border arrests rose from July to August, suggesting August’s drop in border arrests doesn’t track with seasonal trends.
The turnaround is a victory for the Donald Trump administration, which has stepped up efforts in recent months to stem the flow of migrants north, including policies requiring some migrants to apply for asylum in the countries they cross before reaching the US and sending other asylum seekers to await their immigration court dates in Mexico.
This spring, Trump threatened to place tariffs on all Mexican exports, a direct threat against the country’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist nationalist who campaigned on standing up to Trump and who slowed deportations of Central American migrants out of Mexico in the first few months of his tenure.
To skirt the tariff threat, Mexico agreed to significantly boost its own deportations in a landmark June agreement with the US – and its stepped-up efforts appear to be paying off.
“I want to again thank the country of Mexico,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Wednesday, adding that thousands of Mexican soldiers were “right now protecting our border and they’ve done a fantastic job.”
As part of the deal with Trump, Mexico dispatched more than 20,000 members of its National Guard, a newly created force under military command, to Mexico’s southern and northern borders to support immigration officials.
Mexican authorities installed dozens of checkpoints at roads all across Mexico and raided hotels and safe houses in search of illegal migrants.
Ardilio Alexander Menendez, a 39-year-old from El Salvador, decided to head for the US with his 17-year-old son after the construction-materials company where he had worked for 19 years laid him off and competing gangs attempted to recruit his son at school.
His wife and younger son are living in Maryland, where they are awaiting their asylum claim to be processed.
He took buses and hitchhiked portions of the journey north, guided by Google Maps, before he was caught by Mexican officers at a road checkpoint in Monterrey, Mexico.
There, Mexican authorities detained him for 15 days in a shelter, which Menendez said was rarely cleaned and where he was served spoiled food.
Then, he was sent on a 23-hour bus ride back to El Salvador with several other deported migrants.
Mexican authorities have admitted that detention facilities are in “terrible conditions.”
“On the one hand, I feel happy because I’m in my country, but on the other hand, I’m disappointed because I was dreaming of being with family and finding a better life for my children,” Menendez said in Spanish, soon after getting off the bus in San Salvador.
Asked if he would attempt to reach the US again, he said: “Of course. There’s nothing for me here.”
Deportations in Mexico jumped to 84,000 in the January-July period, a 38% increase compared with the same period of last year, while apprehensions rose 76%, data from Mexico’s immigration agency showed.
Deportations in June hit a 13-year high. The vast majority of those deported are migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard plans to travel to Washington next week to review the June agreement.
A top Mexican official at the foreign ministry said the US seems to be satisfied with Mexico’s response so far because the monthly flow of Central American asylum seekers crossing through Mexico fell more than 40% compared with May.
The official said the crackdown on irregular immigration will continue “indefinitely,” not just for the 90 days originally agreed with the US in June.
“This will be a permanent effort,” the official said.
Some experts are skeptical of the Mexican government’s ability to keep up the deportations long term, since the country has diverted National Guard and army soldiers from their regular duties to carry out deportations.
“It’s a whole new level of enforcement, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank in Washington.
The rising number of apprehensions and deportations – and the increasing hurdles to request asylum in the US – not only prevented many migrants already in Mexico from getting to the US-Mexico border, but also discouraged new movements, experts say.
Many migrants have decided against leaving now and plan to wait for more favorable times.
“Mexico has become too hostile for them. Many are in a wait-and-see mode,” said Hector Silva, the head of a migrant shelter in the Mexican border city of Reynosa.
He said the flow of migrants at his shelter fell by 15% since June.
Mexican authorities believe the US won’t put forward during next week’s meeting in Washington a proposal to turn Mexico into a so-called “safe third country,” which would force Guatemalans to seek asylum in Mexico instead of the US.
The Mexican official said that Mexico wouldn’t accept in any scenario such a deal, in part because he said Mexico’s Senate would never ratify it.
The Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
In late July, the US and Guatemala signed a deal that would force Salvadorans and Hondurans to ask for asylum in Guatemala, but the agreement hasn’t come into force yet and faces political and legal hurdles in Guatemala.