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Ending a decadelong decline, more Mexicans are migrating to US


A gathering outside a home to pray for three missing young men who may be among the more than 50 who died in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, in the town of San Marcos Atesquilapan, Mexico, June 30, 2022.

By Oscar López and Maria Abi-Habib


The teenage brothers were among about 80 young men who had left San Marcos in the past two months, a growing exodus from this impoverished village of 1,600 that sits in the lush mountains of Veracruz state.


Last 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, although 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% 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.


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 pre-pandemic growth levels.


Inflation hit a 21-year high in April, while growth is estimated at 1.8% this year, below expectations. The pandemic pushed 3.8 million people into poverty, and 44% 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% 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, 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.,” 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.


In the days since the migrants were found in San Antonio, Biden administration officials have centered their responses on the need to target human smugglers. President Joe Biden on Tuesday pointed to an anti-smuggling partnership his administration announced with other nations at the Summit of the Americas last month as one possible solution.


“This incident underscores the need to go after the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths,” Biden said.


In Texas, the truck’s driver and another man have been charged by federal prosecutors in the death of the migrants.


The likelihood of any movement in Washington on migration measures, including 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 before the November midterm elections, 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,” Meyer said. “And it’s in part because the U.S. has enabled that to happen.”

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