MEXICO CITY (OSV News) – Dominican Brother Obed Cuellar has seen large numbers of migrants arrive daily in the Mexican border city of Piedras Negras, where they plan to cross the Rio Grande into neighboring Eagle Pass, Texas.
But there’s still space available in the diocesan-run migrant shelter. "They head straight for the river," he told OSV News.
An estimated 2,200 migrants crossed the Rio Grande into Eagle Pass in the early morning hours of Sept. 18, one of the largest massive crossings on record, according to Fox News. It’s a scene playing out at other crossings across the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border as migrants arrive in increasingly large numbers, straining the resources of migrant assistance organizations and U.S. Border Patrol officials alike.
The U.S. Border Patrol recorded more than 177,000 arrests in August, according to The Washington Post – roughly a 30% increase from the 132,652 migrants detained in July.
The sharp increase in arrests followed a jump from 99,539 detentions in June – the month following the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era health provision that allowed for the immediate expulsion of migrants to Mexico. A record number of families also were taken into custody by Border Patrol in August, according to the Post.
Analysts say migrants took a wait-and-see approach to how the new rules would be applied. They also say that the urge to migrate remains strong – with many people coming from countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, where repressive regimes have poor relations with the United States, making deportations difficult.
Bro. Cuellar said many migrants arrive at the border with the idea that they will be let into the United States. Some are allowed entry – with notices to appear in court. But many are sent back to Mexico and transported to destinations in southern states far from the United States border.
"That’s where the ordeal starts for many of them," he said, adding those removed from the border region are given 20 days to leave the country. "In those 20 days, many of them make their way back to the border."
Governments to the south of Mexico also report record flows of people moving northward through Central America and into Mexico.
Panama recently announced increased deportations and tighter requirements for short-term visits after recording 350,000 people attempting to cross the Darién Gap so far in 2023. Those figures surpassed the 250,000 people transiting the thick jungle on the border with Colombia in 2022.
"These deportation measures are fundamentally not against the flow through the Darién … it’s against people that live in Panama, who are irregular," said Elías Cornejo, migrant services coordinator for the Jesuit ministry Fe y Alegría in Panama, told OSV News. "The Darién flow is not going to be affected unless they recognize that many people are being stranded in Panama."
Other countries in Central America also are reporting record transmigration.
Honduras recorded an average of 23,660 migrants transiting its territory monthly between August 2022 and June 2023, according to Adam Isacson, director of the defense oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. That figure more than doubled to 48,971 people in July and topped 63,000 people in August, Isacson posted on X, formerly Twitter.
The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or COMAR, reported a 30% increase in asylum requests during the first eight months of 2023, when compared to the same period of 2022.
Many of the migrants entering Mexico become stranded in the city of Tapachula near the Guatemala border, prompting them to request travel documents or apply for asylum. A collective of migrant and human rights advocacy groups said in an Aug. 29 statement that they counted 1,900 people attempting to apply for asylum outside the COMAR offices in Tapachula.
"There are no alternative means of immigration regularization, so people are basically forced to either request asylum in Mexico or travel by whatever means they have, and the means they have are very limited," Karen Pérez Martínez, coordinator at Jesuit Refugee Service office in Tapachula, told OSV News.
She said some people in southern Mexico can obtain appointments for entering the United States through the CBP One application – presumably with the help of smugglers – even though it can only be accessed by people north of Mexico City. With the CBP One appointments, Pérez said, some people are permitted by Mexican immigration officials to pass through the country.
"It’s easy to enter Mexico, but it’s difficult to leave Tapachula," Pérez said. "Migration officials resolve everything discretionally."
Some migrant shelters throughout Mexico are operating at capacity.
Shelters in Mexico City have issued an urgent appeal for assistance due to crushing demand. It’s the product, in part, of some migrants preferring to wait for their appointments to enter the United States in the national capital and dangerous border cities, according to Margarita Núñez, coordinator of the Migration Affairs Program at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.
Many migrants who cannot return to their countries of origin, "but can’t enter the United States" often end up in Mexico City, too, she said.
Even with the CBP One application providing 1,450 appointments daily for asylum seekers, snagging a time can be challenging for migrants, according to advocates, prompting impatience and desperation.
"It’s not giving the responses people need in the time that they need," Núñez said.
Migrants, it seems, are not easily dissuaded from attempting to enter the United States – legally or otherwise.
Officials in Texas tried to slow migrants entering Eagle Pass by installing a series of buoys in the Rio Grande. The U.S. Department of Justice won a court case against Texas, with the judge ordering the buoys be removed. The Texas government appealed that ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Sept. 7 halted the other judge's order, letting the buoys stay while the legal challenge continues.
Bro. Cuellar said the buoys only provided modest inconvenience for migrants. "It only made them walk a little further" before crossing, he said.