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In Mexico, Biden team asks for more help stopping irregular migration

Mexican immigration agents review the identification of a Guatemalan woman at an access point to the Suchiate River, a natural border between Guatemala and Mexico, on Sunday. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

As a growing number of migrants head for the U.S. border, Mexico is taking a series of high-profile actions to show it’s trying to stop them: Restricting travel across its southern border, touting the deployment of nearly 9,000 troops, even organizing a parade of migration officers through a southern city.

And yet, as Biden administration officials visited the country Tuesday, it was unclear whether those actions were having much effect.

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The Biden administration is desperate for help from Mexico to contain what’s on track to be the biggest surge in irregular migration in 20 years. When President Donald Trump faced a similar scenario, in 2019, he threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican goods unless its government throttled the migrant traffic. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promptly did so.

The U.S. delegation, led by Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s coordinator for the southwest border, was seeking to “develop an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration” during its meetings with Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and other officials, according to Emily Horne, a National Security Council spokeswoman.

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval announced Monday that 8,715 army and National Guard troops were deployed at the country’s northern and southern borders to detain unauthorized migrants. But while the number made headlines, it’s barely more than the average of 8,058 troops posted at the borders during 2020, according to Sam Storr, a consultant to the citizen security program at Ibero-American University who studies the Mexican military.

In contrast, about 15,000 troops were dispatched to Mexico’s northern border alone after Trump’s 2019 ultimatum. A Mexican National Guard spokesman confirmed Tuesday there had been no significant recent increase in border deployments.

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Mexico last week announced it was closing its southern border to nonessential travel, citing risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The move was widely seen as a concession to the Biden administration, which agreed to provide Mexico sorely needed coronavirus vaccines as the countries held talks on border control. (The two sides denied there was a quid pro quo).

Yet migrants continue to stream through informal crossings in rural parts of the Mexican-Guatemalan border, according to advocates.

Brenda Ochoa, director of the Fray Matias de Cordova human rights center in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, said National Guard forces had taken up prominent positions along the river separating the country from Guatemala, discouraging passage. But she said the show of force could simply prompt migrants and asylum seekers to try their luck in more remote — and more dangerous — areas.

“They will look for other ways to get in and take more risks,” she said.

Migrant advocates in other border areas said the security presence did not seem much different this week. “We haven’t seen changes up until now; there isn’t an increased presence of officials or the army,” said Rubén Figueroa, an activist with the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, based in the southeastern city of Palenque.

Mexican officials have attempted to show they are cracking down on migrant smuggling, with shows of force and detentions. On Friday, authorities stopped 95 migrants without legal papers at the airport in the northern city of Monterrey. A day earlier, they discovered three trucks packed with 329 migrants — including 114 unaccompanied children — in the southern state of Chiapas.

Mexico is holding hundreds of unaccompanied children detained before they reach the U.S. border

Hundreds of migration agents, soldiers and National Guard members paraded through the streets of that state’s capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in what was billed as part of an effort to protect children from exploitation by traffickers.

Tonatiuh Guillén, the former head of Mexico’s migration system, said he was seeing signs of “a notable effort” to step up detentions in the southern part of the country. But in the past few months, he said, that “hasn’t had a significant impact because the irregular movement [of migrants] involves relatively small groups,” rather than the giant migrant caravans Mexican authorities had halted in 2019 and 2020.

Irregular migration dropped sharply after Trump’s showdown with Mexico in June 2019 and remained low during 2020 as the pandemic closed borders and forced people to stay home. But it’s shot up recently because of a combination of factors: pandemic-induced economic crises, two hurricanes that ravaged Central America, the end of strict coronavirus lockdowns, and a perception that the Biden administration will be more tolerant of migration.

Biden and his administration have appealed to migrants not to rush to the border. “Don’t come over,” Biden told ABC News last week. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.” But the message appears to have had little effect.

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