As border rule change looms, Mexico frets about U.S. immigration strategy

·4 min read

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexican officials are concerned the repeal of a measure adopted under the Trump administration to tighten the U.S. border will encourage a spike in migration and more profits for criminal gangs unless Washington does more to help mitigate the impact.

The United States has said it will on May 23 end the so-called Title 42 order issued during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that has effectively shut down the U.S. asylum system at its shared 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Title 42 has allowed U.S. authorities to quickly expel migrants to Mexico, and its removal risks pushing the record number of migrants attempting to enter the United States higher still, officials and politicians said.

"The flow of migrants we have now is already out of control," said Rosa Maria Gonzalez, a lawmaker from Mexico's center-right opposition National Action Party who represents the northern border state of Tamaulipas and heads the lower house of Congress migration committee.

Gonzalez said she expected more people to try to get into the United States when Title 42 ends, and urged Washington to improve migrants' access to the U.S. labor market and speed up processing of asylum requests to ease pressure on the border.

Mexico's government, which never favored the hardline immigration stance of former U.S. President Donald Trump, has looked on warily as his successor Joe Biden has sought to adopt more moderate policies, mindful that the changing signals could fire up more people to make the journey.

So far the U.S. government has not proposed to Mexico any additional measures to address the likely outcomes of doing away with Title 42, and that needs to be addressed, a Mexican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official made the comments before the arrival of Julieta Valls Noyes, a senior U.S. migration official, who flew to Mexico this week for talks due to last until the weekend.

Unless the U.S. government steps up repatriation flights of migrants apprehended at the border, Title 42's repeal could be an "enormous incentive" to cross, and create opportunities for organized crime, a second Mexican official said.

Mexico has little scope to tighten its southern border, the official said, urging the United States to work more closely with Mexico on closing down the financial networks used by criminal gangs to make money by exploiting migrants.

The Biden administration, in compliance with a court order, has restarted another Trump-era program obliging asylum-seekers to await U.S. hearings in Mexico. There has been no indication yet that scheme would be used to offset the impact of Title 42's withdrawal, one of the Mexican officials said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it had set up a comprehensive plan to manage any increase in migrant numbers, would increase personnel and resources as needed, and had redeployed over 600 law enforcement officers to the border.

"We are increasing our capacity to process new arrivals, evaluate asylum requests, and quickly remove those who do not qualify for protection," a DHS spokesperson said.

The U.S. State Department said it continued to work closely with Mexico on migration management and alerted it ahead of time to upcoming changes that Title 42's repeal would involve.

Mexico's national migration authority and the foreign ministry did not reply to requests for comment.

Mexico has had to deploy thousands of National Guard troops to police its frontiers and migrant smuggling routes.

U.S. officials are on track to arrest even more migrants at the border with Mexico this year after record-breaking figures in Biden's first year in office. In the past week, they have logged about 9,000 migrant encounters per day, one current and one former U.S. official told Reuters.

The influx of migrants that Title 42's elimination is expected to fuel could spark humanitarian crises on Mexico's northern border, said Victor Clark Alfaro, a migration expert at the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana.

Many migrants are already waiting in shelters in Tijuana to apply for asylum or for hearings, he said, anticipating further strains on already overwhelmed U.S. immigration courts.

Compared with the same period in 2021, Mexico's detentions of migrants doubled in the first two months of this year after reaching the highest levels on record last year.

Their often perilous trek across Mexico has created a lucrative trafficking business for smugglers, according to officials. Thousands more migrants stranded in camps on the U.S-Mexico border have also become prey for extortion, they say.

"They're making so much money that the (gangs) obviously don't want (migrants) to leave," said congresswoman Gonzalez.

(Reporting by Dave Graham;Additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington;Editing by Aurora Ellis and Rosalba O'Brien)

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