With the U.S. Asylum System Closed to Many, Some Find Sanctuary in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY — Record numbers of asylum seekers are applying for sanctuary in Mexico — some after arriving at the southwest border of the United States hoping to find a safe haven under President Biden, but hitting a closed door.

In March, the Mexican government received asylum petitions from more than 9,000 people, the highest monthly tally ever, officials said. And they predicted that the surging demand, evident in recent month, would continue, possibly reaching a total of 90,000 asylum requests by the end of the year, which would also be an all-time high.

The soaring numbers of asylum petitions in Mexico are in part a reflection of the turmoil at the American border, where the Biden administration is struggling to deal with a surge in undocumented migration and has prevented many asylum seekers from presenting their cases to immigration officials.

Mexico has also become an increasingly attractive destination in its own right for refugees, who have generally found asylum easier to achieve in Mexico than in the United States. Some have also been drawn by the opportunity to reunite with family and friends, and by possibilities of work and a degree of safety that they lacked at home.

The sharp increase has put additional stress on humanitarian groups and on the Mexican government, which has been under pressure from Washington to do more to curb the northbound flows of migrants from Central America and elsewhere.

“Enormous amounts are arriving,” Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Silva, general coordinator of the Mexican government agency that processes asylum petitions, said of the case load. “With the personnel we have, we have to deal with a number that grows and grows and continues to grow.”

For decades, Mexico was essentially a thruway for people from Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world seeking to reach the United States. But in the past few years, Mexico has become a more attractive destination for migrants.

Mr. Trump accelerated this process with aggressive efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, including strategies to discourage asylum seekers by making it more difficult for them to secure sanctuary. Among those efforts was a widely criticized policy called Migration Protection Protocols, or M.P.P., that forced those seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in American courts.

During Mr. Trump’s term, the number of people seeking asylum in Mexico skyrocketed, to more than 70,400 in 2019 from about 14,600 in 2017, according to the Mexican government. Amid the pandemic and a drastic slowdown in global migration, the number of asylum petitioners dropped to about 41,200 last year. But in the past several months, the volume has risen sharply once again.

This spike has dovetailed with a surge of migrants to the southwest border of the United States driven in part by economic misery that has deepened during the pandemic, two devastating hurricanes that wrecked swaths of Central America and an abiding hope, sometimes fostered by smugglers, that the new administration in Washington would loosen restrictions at the border.

But many migrants and refugees have arrived in Mexico only to find that access to the United States is not as easy as they were led to believe.

Mr. Biden has begun to wind down the M.P.P. program and allow people under its aegis to enter the United States, and an increasing number of families who cross illegally are being detained, processed and released into the U.S.

But American officials have continued to use an emergency rule, implemented by the Trump administration, to rapidly expel single adults, who have made up the majority of those caught at the border. Migrants’ advocates say the use of the rule has blocked many asylum seekers from applying for sanctuary.

Once again a tent encampment has cropped up near an official crossing in Tijuana, sheltering migrants hoping for a chance to present their cases to the American authorities.

Ingrid, a Guatemalan asylum seeker with a pending asylum application in Mexico, said she sought sanctuary in Mexico last month after being expelled from the United States.

She had crossed into Arizona with two of her children, ages 6 and 14, with the help of a smuggler but was detained and sent back to Mexico without being allowed to plead her case, which she said was based on abuse she had suffered in a relationship.

“I was devastated,” said Ingrid, who asked that only her first name be used out of fear for her safety.

Now living in a migrant shelter in Mexico City, she said she was still hoping to reach the United States someday. In the meantime, she said, Mexico was an adequate alternative.

“If I went back to Guatemala, I’d be scared for my life and the lives of my children,” she said. “Here I feel free.”

Officials and advocates say that an increasing number of asylum seekers are arriving already with the intention of settling in Mexico. Most asylum applications in Mexico are filed in the southern border states, suggesting that people are submitting their requests upon arrival.

“What we frequently hear now is: ‘If they offer me something to stay, I’ll stay in Mexico,’” said Brenda Ochoa, director of the Fray Matías Human Rights Center, a migrants’ advocacy group in the southern city of Tapachula. “It’s not a second option.”

Some refugees inclined to stay in Mexico are seeking to reunify with relatives and friends who arrived earlier and put down roots, said Mr. Ramírez, director of the Mexican asylum agency, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or Comar.

Some are also drawn by Mexico’s enormous demand for low-income labor, a need that the government has advertised.

“If they compare the type of life they have in their own countries, at the end of the day they have it better here,” in Mexico, Mr. Ramírez said.

And the country’s approval rate for asylum is high: During the first three months of this year it reached 73 percent, with another 7 percent receiving other sorts of humanitarian protection.

Hondurans — fleeing a toxic mixture of economic distress, government corruption and ineptitude, violence and natural disasters — have been far and away the single largest population of asylum seekers in Mexico since 2019. Approval rates for Honduran petitions concluded during the first three months of this year hit 86 percent.

“We don’t know if it’s their first or their second intention” to remain in Mexico, Mr. Ramírez said of asylum petitioners. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”

The historic number of people filing new asylum petitions in March came despite a decision by the Mexican government last month to close the nation’s southern border to nonessential traffic. The continuing flows of refugees arriving from the south has further exposed the extreme porousness of that border and, migration experts say, the weakness of Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts.

“These are people who clearly don’t want to go back home,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration consultant based in Washington. “And they’re going to find a mechanism to stay in Mexico or in the United States.”

Oscar Lopez and Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting