Mexican authorities have agreed to take back more Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants expelled by the United States under the Title 42 public health order, according to three U.S. officials and two Mexican officials with knowledge of the arrangement.
During migration talks in recent weeks led by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mexican officials agreed to take back significantly more Cubans and Nicaraguans, according to three U.S. officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
One official said the Mexican government asked the United States to refrain from returning Cubans and Nicaraguans in certain areas such as the Border Patrol’s busy Del Rio Sector, where both countries lack processing capacity. But the U.S. official said the number of Cubans and Nicaraguans going back would likely be in the thousands.
Two senior Mexican officials said the agreement was reached April 26 and that Mexico was accepting “very limited numbers” of Cubans and Nicaraguans.
“This was done due to the exponential increase in arrivals from both countries to Mexico and the United States,” said one senior Mexican official.
“In the case of Cuba, we also took into account that the U.S. restarted visa processing on the island,” the official said, referring to the Biden’s administration’s limited resumption of consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The delicate negotiations with Mexico point to the complex border contortions the Biden administration is making as it works behind the scenes to expand the use of Title 42 despite publicly opposing the policy and preparing to end it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set the Title 42 order to expire May 23, so any increase in returns to Mexico may be short-lived. A federal judge in Louisiana last month temporarily blocked the Biden administration from phasing out Title 42, and Republican-led states are challenging the CDC timeline to end it. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for May 13.
Newly obtained enforcement data show that the Biden administration remains under major strain along the southern border. Last month, the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rose to about 234,000, up from 221,000 in March, according to preliminary figures obtained by The Post.
Cuba was the second-largest source of border-crossers, April data show. Nearly 35,000 were detained by CBP, up from 32,000 in March. The number of Nicaraguans apprehended fell to about 12,500, down from 16,000 in March. Mexico remains the single largest source of unauthorized migration.
Mexican authorities have previously accepted the return of Cubans, Nicaraguans and other nationalities under the Title 42 order, which U.S. agents can use to quickly turn back migrants and deny them a chance to seek asylum under U.S. law. In recent months, however, Mexico has generally limited returns to migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in addition to its own citizens.
In recent weeks, Mexican authorities have apprehended hundreds of Cubans, many of them hidden in tractor trailers.
Last year, Nicaragua dropped its visa requirement for Cubans, allowing them to arrive easily in Central American and begin the overland journey north.
Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke by phone April 29, ahead of meetings in Washington this week between U.S. officials and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.
Ebrard did not acknowledge any agreement during his public comments following the talks in Washington, but told reporters Tuesday that his country would not give a “free pass” to anyone heading to the U.S. border.
“You can ask for refuge, you can ask for asylum, you can be a temporary worker … but what we’re not going to allow is for Mexico to become a country where anyone can just pass through and we don’t know who they are,” said Ebrard.
DHS issued a statement Tuesday on the migration talks that said Mayorkas spoke to Mexican officials about U.S. preparations for lifting the Title 42 border restrictions and “emphasized the need for countries throughout the region to manage their respective borders, extend humanitarian relief to qualifying migrants, and repatriate individuals who do not qualify for relief.”
U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to carry out nearly 2 million “expulsions” since the emergency public health order was implemented in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The stated purpose of the measure was to limit the spread of coronavirus in U.S. immigration jails, border stations and communities.
Authorities insist Title 42 is a public health measure, not an immigration policy, but it quickly became the government’s primary border management tool to deal with increasing pressures as record numbers of people from all over the world have arrived requesting asylum, further overwhelming U.S. immigration courts.
Of the 78,903 Cubans taken into CBP custody along the southern border between Oct. 1, 2021, and March 31, only 737 were expelled under Title 42, records show.
Just 2,200 of the 79,066 Nicaraguans who arrived during that same time period were turned back by the public health order. In contrast, about 65 percent of Central Americans from Guatemala and Honduras were expelled under Title 42 during that time, according to the latest available CBP figures.
Migrant advocates and many Democrats have pressured the Biden administration to end Title 42 and restore full access to the U.S. asylum system for those fleeing persecution in their home nations.
Mexico’s cooperation with the United States on immigration enforcement remains a central focus of the bilateral relationship. Mexican officials have urged the U.S. government to return migrants to their home nations, not along the border, which they say encourages increasingly desperate and dangerous attempts to cross.
Since last year, U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to fly some Central Americans to southern Mexico, where Mexican authorities load them onto buses and drive them home.
Sieff reported from Mexico City.