In the wake of a fire that claimed the lives of 40 people, migrant groups have warned that an upcoming change in U.S. border policy will increase pressure on Mexico’s migrant detention system and result in further reports of rights violations.
‘Title 42’, a COVID health order that has permitted the U.S. to swiftly send migrants from its southern border back to Mexico, is set to be lifted on May 11.
That is expected to lead to a large increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the border and the U.S. will likely then lean on Mexico for tighter migration controls such as detentions and deportations, said five policy experts consulted by Reuters.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government began ramping up detentions in 2019 under pressure from former President Donald Trump.
The Biden administration has continued that push, the experts said, as the U.S. made a record 2.2 million apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border last year, including growing numbers from countries to which the U.S. struggles to deport people, such as Venezuela and Cuba.
In 2022, Mexico detained more than 444,000 migrants, 44% more migrants than in the year before. As of last year, the National Migration Institute (INM) operated 57 detention centers with a capacity for more than 6,800 people.
“The (Biden) administration recognizes that at this point, they really need Mexico as a partner on its enforcement efforts,” said Maureen Meyer, a migration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Now, the anticipated end of Title 42 is sparking concern from migrant advocates, who say they have already seen Mexico’s drive to keep back migrants lead to ad-hoc inconsistent practices that have fueled rights violations.
They point to the deadly fire on March 27 in a migrant detention center in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez as a warning sign.
“Last year INM’s actions were brutal. We saw human rights abuses quickly increase,” said July Rodriguez, a member of the INM Citizen Council, which tracks Mexico’s migration policies and gives proposals on how to protect migrant rights.
“We think this year they will multiply, on top of what happened in Juarez.”
More than 2,000 complaints against INM were filed last year with Mexico’s rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), nearly double that of the year before.
Alleged violations included inadequate healthcare, wrongful detention, cruel treatment and intimidation. Most were filed in the southern state of Chiapas, where Mexico has concentrated enforcement efforts. The complaints do not establish that INM was necessarily at fault.
In response to points raised in this article, INM said it is committed to safeguarding migrant rights, aims to promote legal migration, and operates within the law. It added that its detention facilities are equipped to serve migrants, and defended its record in managing the increase of migrants in Mexico.
“No government in the world has shown as much attention to irregular migration as Mexico, yet the exponential increase in these migratory flows has overwhelmed most governments that receive migrants,” said Hector Martinez, who coordinates INM’s offices nationwide, in a statement.
In recent years INM has closed some migration detention centers for poor hygiene and safety conditions. It has offered humanitarian visas to the victims who survived the Ciudad Juarez fire.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the fears that increased Mexican enforcement could lead to rights abuses.
Activists have urged the end of Title 42, criticizing the measure for blocking asylum access.
Although Lopez Obrador pledged a more humanitarian approach towards migration upon taking office in late 2018, he quickly deployed the National Guard to work with INM on enforcement, under pressure from the Trump administration.
Lopez Obrador put a long-time ally, Francisco Garduno, in charge of INM, who early in his tenure said he would deport migrants “even if they’re from Mars.” Garduno now is being criminally investigated for failing to protect the migrants who died in the fire. Several other INM officials are facing homicide charges.
INM has not commented on the accusations, and Garduno could not be directly reached.
The jump in detentions has overwhelmed a system ill-equipped to handle more people, said Alberto Xicotencatl, who runs a migrant shelter in the northern city of Saltillo.
“We have thousands of migrants detained at the borders, throughout the country, without proper shelters, without food, without healthcare, without jobs, without anything,” he said.
Reuters could not verify how many migrants currently are in Mexico.
Mexico’s Human Rights Commission also increased its own rebukes against INM, urging remedies in 30 abuse cases in 2022, up from four it logged the year before. INM told Reuters it is working to correct the violations.
In two instances, the commission faulted INM agents for employing excessive force to detain migrants, including using a taser and hitting a migrant. It also accused agents of quelling protests through violence and poor treatment, including leaving migrants out under heavy rain, and in another instance, physically harming migrants in detention center bathrooms.
INM said it does not equip agents with gear that can harm migrants and that possible excessive force cases are being investigated.
The commission also denounced several INM facilities for poor conditions, citing overcrowding, overflowing toilets and extreme heat. INM said the centers have “all the services” needed to take in migrants.
After the fire, and with more migrants expected to trek through Mexico once Title 42 is lifted, rights groups will be monitoring for any evidence of abuses, Rodriguez said.
“We have to see how to help these people, how they can be in this country without their rights being violated.”