Sneaking north into Mexico wasn’t easy, according to Brandon, who was 14 years old when he left his hometown in Guatemala last April to rejoin his parents in the United States.
A smuggler hired to get Brandon across the border led him on a five-hour hike across rough terrain and through sweltering heat to avoid Mexican border checkpoints.
“I suffered a lot,” Brandon told Fusion during a recent interview in Virginia. “It was really hot. There were a lot of thorns and my shoes broke. I got blisters on my feet.”
The month-long trip didn’t get any easier after that. The coyote warned Brandon’s group that capture by the Mexican federal police meant deportation or bribery. “He said that if they found us, they would arrest everyone.”
Still, Mexican immigration enforcement was no comparison to what he faced when he entered the U.S. After crossing the Rio Grande border into South Texas, Brandon was immediately apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol.
Brandon, who now lives in Virginia with his parents and is awaiting an appearance in immigration court, is part of a new wave of immigrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, often aiming to reunite with relatives and find work in the U.S. From last October to mid-June, more than 181,000 “other-than-Mexican” crossers, as they’re called by the federal government, were apprehended along the Southwest border, many of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Every Central American immigrant that arrives in the U.S. had to first pass through Mexico, which raises the question: How should Mexico respond?
“Migrants are being really abused in horrible, horrible ways as they journey through Mexico,” said Chris Wilson, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “A really effective way for them to prevent migrant abuses is to prevent passage of migrants through the country in the first place.”
That isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Immigration is part of the culture in Mexico, which is not only a transit point but also a country of origin for roughly 150,000 emigrants who head north each year. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 33 percent of Mexicans say they would move to the United States if given the chance, and 18 percent said they’d make the journey even without authorization.
The Mexican government has historically taken a laissez faire approach to Central American transit.
“There’s not a strong political will to detain a large number of simple economic migrants in Mexico,” Wilson said.
Graphic by Pedro Alvarez/Fusion
But there’s also a human-rights question. The Mexican government allows thousands of Central American migrants to ride atop freight trains heading northward through Mexico — a perilous journey that leaves migrants vulnerable to abuses from gang members, as well as injuries from falling off and under the train. Cartels control smuggling routes to the U.S. and migrants— most of whom spend thousands of dollars to make the trip with coyote guides — routinely fall victim to gang violence.
Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s former ambassador to the U.S., told Fusion that Mexico should be more concerned with its record on migrant rights, even though partnership with U.S. immigration efforts are politically challenging in his country.
“The challenge for Mexico is and has been that it is not easy to demand of the U.S. what it cannot guarantee and deliver itself, namely the full respect of the rights and protection of Central American migrants traversing Mexico on their way to the U.S.,” he said via email.
Earlier this week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto joined Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to announce a border-regulation partnership between the two neighboring countries. The crux of the agreement revolves around two points: thwarting gangs that target Guatemalans, and bringing some order to a chaotic border region. Right now, Guatemalan migrants often cross into Mexico on inexpensive rafts, even when they could enter Mexico legally through checkpoints.
Under the partnership, Mexico will add more border checkpoints, but also provide a free visitor’s card to legal entrants from Guatemala and Belize, an expansion of an existing program. The card allows visitors to stay for 72 hours, but restricts access to the southernmost Mexican states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo and Tabasco.
Mexico also has a partnership on its northern border with the United States. Mexican federal police and U.S. Border Patrol run joint patrols through a program known as the “Cross Border Coordination Initiative,” where a line of vehicles drive along either side of the border in a mirror formation, acting as a deterrent and occasionally catching undocumented migrants in the act of crossing. The goal is to curb smuggling and violence in the region, but does not purport to target illegal immigration.
From October 1, 2013, to mid-May, the two countries ran 600 such patrols along the shared border, according to Rodolfo Karisch, the Border Patrol chief in charge of the Del Rio sector in South Texas. “They definitely have put additional focus on the border areas, both here with the U.S. and also with Guatemala,” Karisch said.
Not everyone agrees.
Stu Harris, vice-president of the Border Patrol union in El Paso, told Fusion that the joint patrols amount to a “dog and pony show.” He says that funding would better spent elsewhere. “We usually have between maybe four to six agents on our side and about the same on the Mexican side,” he said. “It’s not a huge amount of people, but when you factor in all the budget concerns…those five to six people are valuable.”
The northern border is only part of the equation. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes areas along the border, told Fusion last May that he had spoken with Mexican President Peña Nieto about the need to bolster security efforts on the Guatemalan border as well.
“The more drugs or undocumented persons we stop in Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, [the fewer] will be coming into our southern border in Texas and New Mexico,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he thinks the Mexican government is “very serious” about securing the border with Guatemala. “Actually I have a copy of their plan,” he said. “I can’t go into that, but I would say that they have outlined the strategy.”
A report released in June by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) found Mexico’s southern border “simple to cross” from Guatemala. You can enter “with an ID card at an official entry point, by wading a river between towns, or by stepping over an invisible line in the backcountry,” according to the report.
It’s even easier the further south you go. Residents of Honduras and El Salvador can cross legally into Guatemala without a passport, thanks to a Central American political integration effort known as the CA-4.
Once immigrants have crossed that border, however, they’ll find stepped-up enforcement from Mexican authorities, at least compared to previous years. Immigration enforcement is more likely to happen at checkpoints on the roads following the border crossing, but that doesn’t mean unauthorized crossers aren’t getting through. “Numerous security agencies with overlapping responsibilities coordinate poorly, suffer from endemic corruption, and manage to stop only a tiny fraction of U.S.-bound drugs,” the report said.
Data from the Mexican government cited in the WOLA report shows that while deportations haven’t increased in recent years, the country has toughened its approach to migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In the first four months of 2014, deportations of migrants from those countries increased by 9 percent compared with that period a year earlier.
One of the authors of the report, Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security with WOLA, told Fusion that he didn’t expect the Mexican government to launch a major campaign against illegal immigration from Central America anytime soon.
“I just don’t think Mexico has the resources and manpower to really put thousands of men on the border,” he said. “They really have security needs elsewhere.”
Update, July 14, 11:50 a.m.: The piece was updated to clarify the number of Mexican migrants who head north each year.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.