Monday , August 8 2022

More Mexicans are Migrating to U.S. After Decade-Long Drop

SAN MARCOS ATESQUILAPAN, Mexico — The teenage brothers were among some 80 young men who had left San Marcos in the last two months, a growing exodus from this impoverished village of 1,600 that sits in the lush mountains of Veracruz state.

On Monday at around 11 a.m., Yovani jubilantly texted his father from the American side of the border: “Dad, now we’re going to San Antonio.”

That was the last their family heard from Jair, 19, and Yovani, 16. Their parents fear, though there has been no official confirmation, that their sons were among the 53 migrants found dead Monday afternoon inside the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, asphyxiated in the scorching heat of the Texan desert.

At least 27 of those dead in the truck were from Mexico, while the rest were from Central America, underscoring a disquieting trend. After declining for more than a decade, the number of Mexicans seeking to migrate to the United States is surging. Since 2020, a combination of growing violence across Mexico and a worsening economy has led to the first jump in Mexican migration in a decade.

As a result, Mexico is becoming an increasing challenge in Washington’s effort to deter migrants from entering the United States across its southern border.

Before Mexico’s numbers began rising, the country served as a crucial buffer against a booming number of Central Americans — primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — heading north to escape poverty, violence or both.

Mexico militarized its approach to migration, deploying thousands of troops to its southern frontier to apprehend Central Americans, and north, to coordinate with U.S. border forces.

When the Biden administration took office, its strategy for curbing migration focused on Central America, providing $4 billion in aid to tackle corruption and improve governance as a way to dissuade people from leaving.

But the surge in Mexican migrants is testing that strategy. The number of Mexicans apprehended in the United States jumped 50 percent from 2019 to 2020, to nearly 255,000 from roughly 170,000. And the figure keeps growing — so far this year, about 379,000 have been detained, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“The numbers make clear that the strategy needs to change,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs at the Washington Office of Latin America, a research organization. “The Biden administration’s perspective of addressing the root causes of migration by focusing on Central America just doesn’t hold anymore.”

Migration from South America and the Caribbean is also rising: The number of migrants from Cuba arriving in the United States has reached levels not seen in four decades.

Ms. Meyer said migration has to be addressed “as a regional phenomenon and not just a Central America one.”

A main driver of migration, according to analysts, has become the pandemic, which has exacerbated chronic inequality and increased poverty and violence.

Migration from Mexico declined between 2009 and 2019, with more Mexicans leaving the United States than arriving. The drop was attributed to a growing Mexican economy and smaller family sizes.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Mexico’s economy was hit hard, like many around the world. But critics say the government’s poor management of the economy has made Mexico one of the few major global nations not to return prepandemic growth levels.

Inflation hit a 21-year high in April, while growth is estimated at 1.8 percent this year, below expectations. The pandemic pushed 3.8 million people into poverty, and 44 percent of Mexicans are now destitute, a 4-percentage-point increase since before the public health crisis.

Veracruz, a state of about 8 million people, has had 350,000 residents leave for the United States, according to Carlos Escalante Igual, who oversees migrant issues for the state. More than 60 percent of the municipality that includes San Marcos lived in poverty before the pandemic, according to official figures, and the economic misery has only deepened since.

The tragedy in San Antonio should be a wake-up call for the United States to create safer pathways for migration, Mr. Escalante said.

“It has to be a watershed, there has to be a before and after of this accident — both for Mexico and for the U.S.,” Mr. Escalante said.

Major labor shortages in the United States will continue propelling migrants to make the journey, whatever the risks, said a senior Mexican official working on migration who was not authorized to speak publicly. The need for more workers underscored the need for more temporary worker visas that provide safe routes for migrants, the official added.

Without those pathways, migrants must rely on criminal organizations and smugglers to ferry them across the border, often in unsafe conditions similar to those that led to the mass deaths in San Antonio.

On Thursday evening, as the fog rolled into San Marcos, a procession of dozens of people slowly walked out of the yellow-painted walls of the main church, some holding candles, others praying. As the cluster of mourners advanced, it was met by the father of Jair and Yovani Valencia Olivares, who knelt on the road in mournful supplication.

Teófilo Valencia Olivares said his sons had begged for permission to go to the United States, but he worried about the trip. Finally, he relented, and agreed to pay for their journey. He took out a loan against the family home to afford the $20,000 smuggler fees.

Among the last text messages he received from Jair, hours before the trailer-truck stacked with bodies was found, was a cheerful promise.

“We’re going to give it everything to be there with the other guys,” Jair wrote, referring to relatives they planned to reunite with in Austin, Texas, who promised to help them find jobs. “To get to work and pay everything off and DO as much as we can.”

Without official confirmation, the family holds out hope that they may be among the 14 survivors in hospitals around San Antonio. They check their phones for a message, but still have heard nothing.

In Guatemala, the family of 17-year-old Jonny Tziquín is also in agonizing limbo. The teenager set north last month from the small city of Nahualá, in central Guatemala, hoping to reunite with relatives in Los Angeles and work in a restaurant there.

As Jonny prepared to cross into Texas on Monday, he wrote the phone number of a relative in Los Angeles on his belt and the bottom of his shoes, aware of the perils he could encounter.

The relative, Rudy Tziquín, eagerly awaited his arrival.

In their last communication, Jonny was upbeat.

“God knows what day” I will arrive, Jonny wrote Rudy in a text message that included a smiling emoji with a halo.

At nearly 11 a.m. on Monday, as Jonny waited to board a tractor-trailer headed toward San Antonio, he sent Rudy a voice message asking him to pray for him.

Rudy did. And waited.

Jonny’s shoes with Rudy’s number scrawled on them were found among the dead in the back of the tractor-trailer on Monday evening.

His fate, as well as those of the others on tractor-trailer, will be repeated without a change in policy, migration experts said.

But the likelihood of any movement in Washington on migration measures, like an increase in temporary worker visas that businesses are lobbying for, is slim since immigration is a hot-button topic Republicans can use to stoke their base ahead of the November midterm elections, Ms. Meyer said.

Instead, illegal border crossings are creating one business boom: organized crime networks in Mexico. A growing portion of drug cartel revenues now comes from smuggling migrants.

“Organized crime is profiting so much off of these migrants coming,” Ms. Meyer said. “And it’s in part because the U.S. has enabled that to happen.”

Maria Abi-Habib reported from Mexico City. Oscar López reported from San Marcos, Mexico. Jody Garcia contributed reporting from Miami, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.


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