At a Mexico City shelter, the nun in charge made another difficult announcement to the mothers and children arriving Wednesday: There was no more space. Five hundred migrants were already crammed into a facility built for 100.
Near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, frustrated people stormed a refugee aid office on Monday after waiting weeks for appointments to receive the necessary documents that allow them to travel farther north.
And in Tijuana, nearly all of the city’s 32 shelters were at full capacity this week, as people from nearly 70 countries waited for a U.S. asylum appointment or a chance to sneak across the border.
Similar scenes are playing out across the country as Mexico’s immigration system strains under a tide of people desperately trying to go north. The relentless surge has led to a hodgepodge response in Mexico ranging from shutting down railways heading north to the busing of people to areas with fewer migrants.
American officials are also contending with a new wave of unlawful border crossings that is straining government resources and leaving local officials scrambling as thousands of migrants are released from federal custody. On Wednesday, thousands of people crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas, leading the mayor to declare a state of emergency and a deployment of 800 active-duty military personnel to help process the arrivals.
In Mexico, people coming from South America are outpacing those from Central America for the first time since data has been collected.
Mexican officials recorded 140,671 migrants from South American countries the first seven months of the year, compared to 102,106 from Central America, with record numbers coming from Venezuela and Ecuador.
These shifting migration patterns are particularly visible in the Darién Gap, the narrow stretch of jungle terrain connecting Colombia and Panama. Venezuelans and Ecuadoreans are the most prominent nationalities passing through there, where the boom in migrant crossings has become a multimillion dollar business.
In 2022, nearly 250,000 people crossed the jungle, an annual record. This year, that number has risen to 380,000 as of Sept. 18, according to Panamanian authorities.
Several factors are driving the exodus. In Venezuela, the economy is sputtering again, after past signs of uneven improvement. In Ecuador, violence related to narco-trafficking has soared, and the recent assassination of a presidential candidate has left many with no hope that the situation will improve.
Guatemalan officials say they have seen a notable increase in people over the last three weeks and plan to send more soldiers and police officers to tighten border security.
While there are no official estimates, the International Rescue Committee says approximately 5,000 people are arriving daily in southern Mexico to be processed by the refugee aid agency in the city of Tapachula. An unknown thousands more are bypassing the refugee office and continuing north unlawfully.
So far this year, the agency has received an unprecedented 99,881 asylum requests, according to figures released by the government. Mexico is expected to receive a record 150,000 asylum applications in 2023, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In 2022, Mexico processed 118,570 requests.
For Rafael Velásquez, the International Rescue Committee country director for Mexico, the most worrying issues are the needs of people entering the southern part of the country.
“Before, people often arrived to our teams to ask for legal orientation, but what we are seeing now is people asking for water, food, very basic care and that is very worrying for us,” he said. Usually, migration spikes look like chain reactions in Mexico from south to north but “we are seeing concentrations of migrants simultaneously across the country,” Mr. Velásquez said.
Making the migration situation more complex is Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which has been reeling since a fire at a detention center in Ciudad Juárez killed 39 migrants in March, according to migration experts. Francisco Garduño Yáñez, the head of the agency, faces a criminal charge related to the blaze but continues running the institute. Most migrant detention centers have been all but shut pending a review by the National Human Rights Commission.
In addition, Mexico’s Supreme Court in March ruled it unconstitutional to detain migrants for more than 36 hours, since being undocumented is an administrative, not criminal, infraction.
Using a combination of immigration agents and tens of thousands of National Guard troops, Mexico continues to stop large numbers of people across the country from going north — 317,334 in the first seven months of the year. But most are released in Mexico: Deportations have dropped 55 percent to 34,557 the first seven months of 2023 compared to the same period last year, according to government data.
In early September, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said migrants have increasingly become the targets of kidnappings in Mexico. In recent months, he has repeatedly insisted on the need to invest and support the countries where migrants hail from.
“We are always going to protect them and we are constantly watching to make sure that they are not robbed, that their human rights are not violated,” he said.
While Mexico’s immigration institute has not announced any policy change, lawyers and humanitarian workers say officials are rarely detaining people and instead are temporarily holding them for up to 36 hours in buses or makeshift facilities, shipping them south, and then releasing them with “voluntary departure” notices asking them to leave the country. Most turn around and try again.
“My sense is they are making it up as they go along,” Gretchen Kuhner, the director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico, said of the country’s immigration agency. “They are inventing a series of other ways to deter migrants.”
The National Migration Institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At bus terminals across northern Mexico, workers have been ordered to stop selling tickets to migrants because of the threats posed by both law enforcement officials and kidnappings by organized crime groups, according to Ari Sawyer, a border researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“We’re seeing Mexican police, National Guard and migration agents boarding buses at checkpoints,” said Ari Sawyer, a border researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Migrants and workers on bus lines report officials demanding payment from migrants in order to continue their journey north.
According to lawyers and immigration experts, migration officials also demand payment from people during brief detentions aboard National Migration Institute buses. In some cases, they tell migrants the bus is going to one city and then drop them off in another place with no notice.
The unpredictable busing of people by officials is most often used to disperse them away from high concentration areas, like Tapachula, and cities across the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexico City.
Ms. Kuhner said this tactic serves to exhaust people during multiple trips across Mexico in which they face robbery, extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence from officials and organized crime groups.
More recently, Grupo México, which operates several railways in the country, has temporarily halted 60 trains on northbound routes after nearly a half-dozen instances of people facing injury or death while unlawfully riding trains. Migration officials also announced they would increase sweeps along train lines.
People trying to get north often spend days riding the freight train, known as “the beast” or “the train of death” because so many have fallen off and lost limbs or been killed, which drops them off in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
The company issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying it was “forced to halt the movement of cargo trains to protect the integrity of migrant people.”
Mexico’s national migration institute said Wednesday that so far this month about 3,000 migrants had tried to reach the northern border by train. The agency added that it would deploy more federal agents along the train routes to dissuade migrants from risking their lives.
Such dangerous, exhausting stints in Mexico have many people ready to try a risky unlawful crossing into the United States.
“We’ve hit this breaking point,” says Mx. Sawyer. “People are losing hope.”
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega and Elda Cantú contributed reporting from Mexico City; Jody García from Gothenburg, Sweden; Julie Turkewitz from Bogotá, Colombia; Aline Corpus from Tijuana; and Eileen Sullivan from Washington.