Under a tide of people desperately leaving South America, Mexico’s immigration system is straining

From shutting down railways heading north to the busing of people to areas with fewer migrants, Mexico is struggling with efforts to manage the crisis

At a Mexico City shelter, the nun in charge made another difficult announcement to the mothers and children arriving on Wednesday last week: There was no more space. Five-hundred migrants were already crammed into a facility built for 100.

Near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, frustrated people stormed a refugee aid office two days earlier after waiting weeks for appointments to receive the necessary documents that allow them to travel farther north.

In Tijuana, nearly all of the city’s 32 shelters were at full capacity last week as people from nearly 70 countries waited for a United States asylum appointment or a chance to sneak across the border.

Similar scenes are playing out across the country as Mexico’s immigration system strains under a tide of people desperately trying to go north. It has led to a hodgepodge response in Mexico ranging from shutting down railways heading north to the busing of people to areas with fewer migrants.


US officials are also contending with a new increase of unlawful border crossings that is straining government resources and leaving local officials scrambling as thousands of migrants are released from federal custody.

On Wednesday, thousands of people crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas, leading the mayor to declare a state of emergency and a deployment of 800 active-duty military personnel to help process the arrivals.

In Mexico, people coming from South America are outpacing those from Central America for the first time since data has been collected.

Mexican officials recorded 140,671 migrants from South American countries in the first seven months of the year, compared with 102,106 from Central America, with record numbers coming from Venezuela and Ecuador.

These shifting migration patterns are particularly visible in the Darién Gap, the narrow stretch of jungle terrain connecting Colombia and Panama. Venezuelans and Ecuadorians are the most prominent nationalities passing through there, where the increase in migrant crossings has become a multimillion-dollar business.

In 2022, nearly 250,000 people crossed the jungle, an annual record. This year, that number has risen to 380,000 as of September 18th, according to Panamanian authorities.

Several factors are driving the exodus. In Venezuela, the economy is sputtering again, after past signs of uneven improvement. In Ecuador, violence related to narco-trafficking has soared, and the recent assassination of a presidential candidate has left many with no hope that the situation will improve.

Guatemalan officials say they have seen a notable increase in people over the last three weeks and plan to send more soldiers and police officers to tighten border security.

While there are no official estimates, the International Rescue Committee said about 5,000 people are arriving daily in southern Mexico to be processed by the refugee aid agency in the city of Tapachula. Meanwhile, thousands more are bypassing the refugee office unknown and continuing north unlawfully.

So far this year, the agency has received an unprecedented 99,881 asylum requests, according to figures released by the government. Mexico is expected to receive a record 150,000 asylum applications in 2023, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In 2022, Mexico processed 118,570 requests.

For Rafael Velásquez, the International Rescue Committee country director for Mexico, the most worrying issues are the needs of people entering the southern part of the country.

“Before, people often arrived to our teams to ask for legal orientation, but what we are seeing now is people asking for water, food, very basic care, and that is very worrying for us,” he says. Usually, migration spikes look like chain reactions in Mexico from south to north, but “we are seeing concentrations of migrants simultaneously across the country”.

Making the migration situation more complex is Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which has been reeling since a fire at a detention centre in Ciudad Juárez killed 39 migrants in March, according to migration experts. Francisco Garduño Yáñez, the head of the agency, faces a criminal charge relating to the blaze but continues running the institute. Most migrant detention centres have been all but shut, pending a review by the National Human Rights Commission.

In addition, Mexico’s supreme court in March ruled it unconstitutional to detain migrants for more than 36 hours, since being undocumented is an administrative, not criminal, infraction.

Using a combination of immigration agents and tens of thousands of National Guard troops, Mexico continues to stop large numbers of people across the country from going north – 317,334 in the first seven months of the year. But most are released in Mexico: Deportations have dropped 55 per cent to 34,557 the first seven months of 2023 compared to the same period last year, according to government data.

In early September, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador said migrants have increasingly become the targets of kidnappings in Mexico. In recent months, he has repeatedly insisted on the need to invest and support the countries where migrants hail from.

“We are always going to protect them, and we are constantly watching to make sure that they are not robbed, that their human rights are not violated,” the president said.

While Mexico’s immigration institute has not announced any policy change, lawyers and humanitarian workers say officials are rarely detaining people and instead are temporarily holding them for up to 36 hours in buses or makeshift facilities, shipping them south, and then releasing them with “voluntary departure” notices asking them to leave the country. Most turn around and try again.

“My sense is they are making it up as they go along,” Gretchen Kuhner, the director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico, said of the country’s immigration agency. “They are inventing a series of other ways to deter migrants.”

The National Migration Institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At bus terminals across northern Mexico, workers have been ordered to stop selling tickets to migrants because of the threats posed by both law enforcement officials and kidnappings by organised crime groups, according to Ari Sawyer, a border researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“We’re seeing Mexican police, National Guard and migration agents boarding buses at checkpoints,” says Ari Sawyer.

Migrants and workers on bus lines report officials demanding payment from migrants to continue their journey north.

According to lawyers and immigration experts, migration officials also demand payment from people during brief detentions aboard National Migration Institute buses. In some cases, they tell migrants the bus is going to one city and then drop them off in another place with no notice.

The unpredictable busing of people by officials is most often used to disperse people away from high-concentration areas, like Tapachula, cities across the US-Mexico border and Mexico City.

Kuhner says this tactic serves to exhaust people during multiple trips across Mexico in which they face robbery, extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence from officials and organised crime groups.

More recently, Grupo México, which operates several railways in the country, has temporarily halted 60 trains on northbound routes after nearly a half-dozen instances of people facing injury or death while unlawfully riding trains. Migration officials also announced they would increase sweeps along train lines.

People trying to get north often spend days riding the freight train, known as “the beast” or “the train of death” because so many have fallen off and lost limbs or been killed, which drops them off in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The company issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it was “forced to halt the movement of cargo trains to protect the integrity of migrant people”.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute said on Wednesday that so far this month, about 3,000 migrants had tried to reach the northern border by train. The agency added that it would deploy more federal agents along the train routes to dissuade migrants from risking their lives.

Such dangerous, exhausting stints in Mexico have many people ready to try a risky unlawful crossing into the US.

“We’ve hit this breaking point,” says Sawyer. “People are losing hope.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times.