Migrants from Central America wash their clothes at a improvised shelter while waiting for their humanitarian visas to cross the country on their way to the United States, in Mapastepec, in Chiapas state, Mexico April 3. (Jose Torres/Reuters)

When a huge caravan of migrants reached this southern Mexican town in the fall, neighbors poured into the streets to help. A band played marimba music, nurses offered free medical assistance, and townspeople served up chicken tamales and pasta to the beleaguered Central Americans as a swarm of journalists looked on.

But six months and several caravans later, much of that welcome has dried up. Most media have left. And the people of Mapastepec, and other places that have been overwhelmed, are showing their fatigue with the growing stream of migrants. 

“People . . . previously opened their doors to these migrants, but they do not have much extra money here,” said Roberto Sarabia, 56, who works at a small grocery store. “What little they could give, they’ve already given.”

To the irritation of President Trump, Mexico has largely accommodated the migrant caravans that have traversed the country over the past year — and become a symbol of irregular migration. But the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is facing increasing pressure to crack down, both from the U.S. government and migrant-weary Mexicans.


That pressure has exposed deep ambivalence in Mexico. López Obrador, a center-left politician who took office in December, is a champion of Mexican migrants in the United States. Like many Mexicans, he has expressed sympathy for the Central American families — many of them asylum seekers — who now make up most of the migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border. He has promised more effort to integrate them into Mexican society and is seeking to launch projects to give them jobs in their own countries.

But that desire to accommodate migrants might be beginning to change. López Obrador has cut the budgets for Mexico’s federal migration agency and asylum program to focus on other priorities, even as the number of migrants has spiked in recent months. Worried by the growing traffic, security officials are considering a plan to effectively bottle up many migrants in the southern part of the country.

Authorities have also agreed to a Trump administration request to keep migrants in Mexico as they seek U.S. asylum, a process that can take months or years. The authorities argue that they’re helping migrants left in limbo by U.S. policy, but advocates for migrants say the asylum seekers are often trapped in violent Mexican border cities. 

“What we’ve detected is that there’s a certain internal conflict in the government,” said Salva Lacruz of Fray Matías de Córdova, a human rights organization in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border. “They want to have humanitarian policies and iron-fist policies at the same time.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, head of Mexico’s federal migration agency, and other senior officials did not respond to written questions or a request for an interview.

Authorities initially thought that large caravans were a one-off — or maybe two-off —phenomenon. But they have become a a routine way for migrants to travel.

That alarms Mexican officials. Olga Sánchez Cordero, Mexico’s interior minister, warned last month that 20,000 people were preparing to arrive from Honduras in the “mother of all caravans.” She called for federal forces to form a “containment” belt across Mexico's narrowest point, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to block their passage.

But the “mother of all caravans” never materialized — a reflection of how difficult it is to predict how groups organized via social media will form. Mexico continues to respond to the caravans as emergencies, instead of as a lasting change to migration in the region.

The caravans account for only a small percentage of the increase in migration to the United States, analysts say. They have been significant, though, for several reasons.

They present “an existential threat to the smuggling networks” by providing migrants a cheaper, safer way to cross Mexico, Andrew Selee, head of the nonpartisan ­Migration Policy Institute, told a congressional committee Thursday. 

In response, he said, smugglers have offered group rates to migrants and cut prices for adults traveling with children.

That, in turn, has fueled more migration.

The caravans are controversial in part because they are so visible. And their members are needier than migrants who pay smugglers thousands of dollars for package deals that include transportation and lodging.


Central American migrants, part of a caravan hoping to reach the U.S. border, walk along a road March 28 in Tapachula, Mexico. (Isabel Mateos/AP)

“In Tapachula and other small cities in the south, the situation is becoming intolerable for local groups,” said María Dolores París Pombo, a social ­scientist who studies immigration at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “There are no resources to take care of an enormous number of people who arrive and then are stuck” waiting for visas and assistance.

In Mexico, where many people have relatives or friends who have crossed the U.S. border to work illegally, undocumented migration has not been the politically explosive issue it is in the United States.

But in places that have been overwhelmed by migrants, there are signs of growing unease.

In Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Tex., officials were stunned when a group of 2,000 migrants marched into town in February. They provided food and bedding — but enclosed them in an unused factory surrounded with police and barred them from leaving until the federal government issued legal documents.

Some governors have bused migrants through their states so they do not linger and strain local resources.

Last week, the mayor of Huixtla, about 25 miles north of the ­Mexico-Guatemala border, sent police to block a caravan from entering his town.

The migrants moved on to Mapastepec, about 40 miles north. There, the federal government is housing them temporarily in a sports complex.

Alejandro Vicencio Casillas, 18, works in a shop near Mapastepec’s main square. When a caravan passed through in January, he and his friends handed out cups of coffee. But now many people here are suspicious of the migrants, after local news reports blamed them for a rise in crime.

“People have started to ask, ‘Why is it that the migrants are getting more help than our own people?’ ” Casillas said.

López Obrador has continued his predecessor’s policy of deporting thousands of migrants who are in Mexico illegally. In absolute numbers, deportations have been relatively steady during his administration. But as immigration has surged, the rate at which migrants are expelled has fallen. 

Trump tweeted Friday that Mexico, “for the first time in decades, is meaningfully apprehending illegals at THEIR Southern Border . . . This is great and the way it should be.”

Mexico’s foreign minister denied this week that migration policy had changed in response to U.S. pressure. But nonprofit groups in Tapachula said there appeared to be an uptick in detentions in recent days.

López Obrador’s government has sought to legalize the status of members of caravans, initially by fast-tracking one-year humanitarian visas to migrants at the border. Officials issued about 13,000 visas before ending the program in February.

They’re planning to give out visas at Mexican embassies in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in hopes of better controlling the flow of migrants.


Migrants from Central America wash their clothes in Mapastepec. (Jose Torres/Reuters)

Authorities have allowed the migrants in Mapastepec’s sports complex to apply for humanitarian visas, but more keep coming. Hundreds are sleeping under trees outside the complex, uncertain if they will get the same treatment.

Diana Delgado, 27, from Honduras, is one of them. She said her sister received a Mexican permit in early February, crossed the country and eventually sought asylum at the U.S. border. Delgado, a cosmetics saleswoman, left her home after receiving threats for not paying extortion at her business.

“We thought that this was going to be like the other caravans,” she said. “But here we’ve been abandoned.”

Immigration advocates say Mexico  might inadvertently be encouraging more caravans to form.

If migrants travel in large groups, they say, Mexican authorities are more likely to issue them permits — either because there aren’t enough migration agents to detain them, or out of fear of violence or other problems.

If they travel in smaller groups, they have a higher chance of being detained and potentially deported. 

Ariel Guerra Rodriguez, 33, helped organize a group of Cuban immigrants that recently crossed into Mexico from Guatemala.

“None of us know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We don’t know what this country, or its officials, actually want.

“The more people we have going together, the better, because there will be a smaller possibility of being deported.”

Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.