Mexico Also Has a Program That Takes Migrants Far from the Border


In response to pressure from the Biden administration to curb migratory flows, Mexico has discreetly moved thousands of migrants from the U.S. border to locations in the south of the country.

Buses rumble through the town day and night, taking people to a city that many didn’t even know existed.

But instead of landing closer to the U.S. border, they are being taken about 1600 kilometers in the opposite direction: to the heart of southern Mexico, in an enigmatic program aimed at appeasing the Joe Biden government and transporting migrants away from the United States.

In a very unusual move, Mexican authorities publicly acknowledge the bus transport program, making it much less controversial than the efforts of Republican governors to transport migrants to Democratic states, which have become political theater in the United States.

However, the bus transport program exposes the gap between the rhetoric of the Mexican government, which promotes a humanitarian approach to migration, and the country’s role as a hard enforcer of U.S. border goals, leaving many migrant families stranded to fend for themselves.

Honduran migrants, sitting after being detained by immigration officials and the Mexican National Guard at a checkpoint near Villahermosa, in southeastern Mexico.

Immigration agents at a center outside Villahermosa receive buses with migrants brought from Mexico City.

“I asked the agents: ‘How can you treat us like trash?'” said Rosa Guamán, a 29-year-old from Ecuador. She was detained along with her husband and two children by immigration agents in April, near the border town of Piedras Negras. No one told them they were being taken to Villahermosa, an oil hub in southeastern Mexico, until they were halfway there.

In an overcrowded shelter in Villahermosa, she described the journey as the most disheartening part of a month-long trip that included walking through strips of jungle, threats of sexual assault, and bribes to Mexican officials in hopes of reaching New Jersey.

“We are starting from scratch,” said Guamán.

The National Institute of Migration of Mexico refused to comment. Officials there sometimes frame the detention and transfer of migrants in humanitarian jargon as “rescue” or “deterrence” intended to alleviate conditions in dangerous and overcrowded areas, or use the technical term “depressurize.”

But the bus transport program is anything but humanitarian, according to immigration lawyers, pro-migrant rights groups, and shelter administrators in Mexico. The rules for transporting migrants south of the border are often shrouded in the unknown or are publicly ignored by authorities at a time when migration is not as polarizing an issue in Mexican elections as it is in the United States.

Ernesto Vasconcelo, a Venezuelan lawyer who provides legal advice to migrants in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, said there is no public database for lawyers or relatives to see where migrants are taken and their current status.

Mexican immigration authorities, he said, “do not give any information of any kind, INM is hermetic in not giving information to anyone, they do not allow legal representation, which is illegal.”

In December, migrant encounters at the border between Mexico and the United States reached their highest recorded level. Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, flew to Mexico City for emergency talks intended to pressure the Mexican government to do more to curb migration.

Almost immediately afterward, charter flights and buses began dropping a large number of people in Villahermosa.

In the first four months of 2024, U.S. border detentions plunged in one of the sharpest declines in decades, giving the Biden administration some relief as migration persists as one of the main concerns of voters in this year’s elections.

A senior White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the United States does not dictate what measures Mexico should take to curb migration. The official added that although the numbers are going down, the coyotes are sophisticated and both governments need to closely monitor what happens in the future.

Mexican authorities have used buses on occasion for years, but their expansion in recent months highlights the tightening of the country’s immigration policies. Eunice Rendón, coordinator of Agenda Migrante, a coalition of Mexican activist groups, said that bus transportation is a “practice intended to tire migrants, to wear them out.”

Migrant Relocation: The transfer of migrants to the south, away from their intended destination, imposes not only an emotional and physical cost, said Rendón, but also a financial burden, as they must spend money on transportation, accommodation, and bribes each time they make the journey north.

Bus Transportation Strategy: However, bus transportation is part of a strategy that has allowed Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to focus his country’s relations with the U.S. around migration, deflecting very explicit U.S. criticisms in other areas such as trade policy, energy resource management, or his treatment of political opponents.

Sustainability Doubts: There are doubts about whether Mexico’s efforts are sustainable. The country reported around 240,000 migrant arrests in January and February, but less than 7,000 deportations in the same two months, suggesting that the majority of those detained remain in Mexico with the opportunity to head north again.

Persistent Migrant Flow: And the flow of migrants arriving in Mexico from South America persists. Panama said that approximately 109,000 people crossed the Darién Gap in the first three months of 2024, a 14 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

Venezuelans and Central Americans: People from Venezuela and Central America rest near a migrant processing center on the outskirts of Villahermosa after being turned away the night before. A Venezuelan who was transported from the north by bus mops the floor of the Amparito shelter. With these shelters completely full, many migrants rent rooms or sleep on the streets.

Villahermosa as a Main Destination: Villahermosa is one of the main destinations to which migrants are transported. Migrants sleep on the street outside bus stations and convenience stores. Entire families beg for coins at busy intersections. Nearby, people sit on the sidewalk speaking languages like Hindi and Russian.

Local Shelter Administrator: Karina del Carmen Vidal, the administrator of a local migrant shelter, said her facilities have space for about 160 people and have been at or above capacity for months. Hundreds of other families rent rooms in the surrounding area.

Migrants in Shock: “Migrants arrive here in a state of complete shock,” said Vidal. In some cases, she said, they had been transferred to Villahermosa several times.

Forced Bus Transfers: Migrants in the city described being forced by Mexican agents to take the buses, and deprived of information about where they were going and why.

Russian Man’s Story: A Russian man in the shelter recounted being detained in March by immigration officials in Mexico City just before boarding a flight to Tijuana. Unable to speak Spanish or much English, he struggled to understand what was happening. “No one explained anything to me,” said the 34-year-old man, who asked not to be identified. Using Google Translate, he said he had deserted the Russian army with the idea of reaching California and feared that his relatives in Russia could be attacked if he was identified.

Russian Army Deserter: A deserter from the Russian army aiming to reach California said he was detained in Mexico City and transported by bus to Villahermosa. He opens the door for customers at a convenience store in hopes of receiving some money.

Lack of Official Details: With Mexican officials refusing to provide details, it is unclear how many people have been transported by buses to the south.

“But at least thousands of foreign migrants have been sent to Villahermosa and another southern city, Tapachula, according to migration experts, lawyers, and religious leaders. When they are left, some people choose to stay and apply for asylum in Mexico. Others are given an official exit notice, which gives them up to 30 days to leave the country; enough time to try to go north again. Others, however, said they were simply left on the street, without being taken to the migrant processing center.

Tonatiuh Guillén, who led the National Institute of Migration of Mexico at the beginning of López Obrador’s government, said that during his tenure, the agency relocated a smaller number of migrants, mainly from Central America. He said it was considered easier to process migrants and prepare them for deportation in cities in southern Mexico.

But Guillén described the current bus transportation policy as a kind of ‘carousel’ in which people are forced to try several times to cross the border between the United States and Mexico, paying bribes over and over again to migration officials and police during each attempt.

‘It’s a really perverse scenario for migrant people,’ said Guillén.

The criticism from local authorities in Villahermosa of the bus transfer program has been mild, perhaps unsurprisingly because Tabasco is López Obrador’s home state and a stronghold of support.

Both the interim mayor of Villahermosa and the former mayor, who is running for re-election, did not respond to requests for comment. The governor of the state of Tabasco refused to comment. All of them are members of the president’s ruling party, Morena.

However, local media have tried to link the influx of migrants to fears about crime, paying widespread attention to the cases of a Senegalese man accused of stealing cell phones, and another migrant who was said to have boarded a bus to beg and then assaulted the driver.

Roberto Valencia Aguirre, a Catholic priest, said he had to abandon a plan to house migrants in a church in a wealthy part of the city after parishioners expressed objections.

‘I had a very unpleasant reaction from people who said: ‘No, father, we don’t want migrants here’,’ he said.”

Source: NY Times