TREND: Since 2018, Mexico has seen an increase in the number of migrants traveling through the country seeking to reach the U.S. These transit flows have come primarily from Central America and have posed significant challenges for the Mexican government, both domestically and with the U.S.. In June 2019, after three days of intense negotiations to avoid the imposition of steep U.S. tariffs on Mexican goods resulting from significant spikes in Central American unauthorized migration flows, the López Obrador administration signed the U.S.-Mexico Migration Cooperation Agreement. Per the agreement, the Mexican government committed to, among other measures, step up enforcement at its border with Guatemala and in the country’s interior, including deploying its newly created National Guard to assist in migration control.
- The same month the Mexican government signed this agreement, migration authorities apprehended more than 31,000 migrants with assistance from the National Guard and carried out 22,200 returns—the highest monthly figures recorded by Mexico’s National Institute of Migration since at least 2001.
- While migrant apprehensions and returns reached a historic high in June and remained elevated through Summer 2019, enforcement levels for all of 2019 did not surpass those from 2015, following Mexico’s launch of its Southern Border Program in response to the 2014 Central American unaccompanied minors’ crisis. In 2019, Mexican authorities apprehended 187,000 migrants and returned 141,000, while in 2015 they apprehended 198,000 migrants and returned 181,000.
- Of the 187,000 migrants apprehended by Mexican authorities in 2019, 52,000 were minors, and, of those, 42,000 were returned. As a result, minors accounted for 28 percent of all apprehensions and 30 percent of all returns. Three out of every four of these minors were accompanied by an adult.
- Similar in composition to recent refugee flows in Mexico, migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have traditionally accounted for the vast majority of apprehensions and returns made by Mexican authorities. Combined, nationals from these three countries represented 83 percent of the 187,000 apprehensions in 2019 and accounted for even a greater share of the 141,000 returns, at 96 percent.
- However, the composition of migrant flows from these three countries started to shift in 2018 with the advent of migrant caravans predominantly from Honduras. From 2018 to April 2020, Honduran migrants have accounted for 44 percent of all apprehensions and 47 percent of all returns by Mexican authorities, followed by Guatemalans (32 percent and 37 percent, respectively) and Salvadorans (10 percent and 11 percent, respectively).
- Regional efforts in Spring 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19 by limiting mobility have compounded decreases in irregular migration, which began in Fall 2019 following Mexico’s heightened enforcement. In April 2020, authorities apprehended 3,000 migrants compared to the 21,000 in April 2019, representing an 87-percent decrease. Likewise, Mexican authorities returned 2,000 migrants in April 2020 compared to 16,000 migrants in April 2019, also decreasing by 87 percent.
TAKEAWAY: In the past year, Mexico’s migration management under President López Obrador has shifted from an approach that initially emphasized legal pathways, such as humanitarian visas and avenues for asylum, to one based primarily on migration control. In addition to heightened migration enforcement, the various measures imposed by North and Central American governments to contain the spread of COVID-19, such as travel restrictions, border controls, and, in the case of the United States, fast-track expulsions, have further reduced unauthorized migration flows. Yet, it is likely that flows from these three Central American countries will continue to play a key role in shaping Mexico’s migration policy responses.
* Spotlight by Andrea Tanco & Ariel Ruiz, Associate Policy Analysts at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI). MPI seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions. Twitter: @migrationpolicy