The undisputed champion of migrant transportation in North America is not the Governor of Texas, but rather the President of Mexico.

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In PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico, Ana Elizabeth Melgar faced a challenging journey, requiring four attempts to reach the U.S. border. Each northward trek ended with Mexican immigration officials intercepting her and transporting her southward—not to her native El Salvador, but deeper into Mexico.

Melgar, taking respite at a Catholic shelter in a border town opposite Eagle Pass, Texas, expressed her frustration: “If I’m caught as a migrant, I should be sent back to my own country. I understand I’m not supposed to be here, but why am I being shuttled further south within Mexico? It’s nonsensical.”

While the Biden administration and Texas officials claim responsibility for the unexpected reduction in illegal border crossings this spring, with the White House highlighting its sanctioned routes and Governor Greg Abbott lauding his military and barbed wire measures, experts, advocates for immigrants, and the migrants themselves point to Mexico as the barrier to the northward journey.

Under the leadership of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s immigration authority has ramped up a busing initiative designed to undermine migrants’ prospects of reaching the U.S. border—or at least stall their progress—by detaining them on transit routes and relocating them to Mexico’s southern extremities.

Economic considerations likely drive López Obrador’s strategy. The previous autumn witnessed a massive influx of migrants into the U.S. Southwest, posing a significant obstacle to commerce between Mexico and its most substantial trade partner, the United States.

Advocates for immigrants argue that this policy leaves vulnerable individuals at the mercy of traffickers. Migrants recount experiences of extortion along northern paths, only to be apprehended at checkpoints and sent back to start their arduous journey anew.

“The Mexican government is essentially sending people around in circles,” stated Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “The decline in numbers isn’t due to Texas’s busing efforts; it’s attributable to Mexico’s.”

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency reported less than 189,372 migrant encounters in March, a slight decrease from the 189,914 in February—a period when migration numbers typically begin to rise. The first ten days of April also saw lower-than-usual encounters, as noted in congressional testimony.

This downturn defies the expected seasonal patterns and marks only the second instance this century where encounters have decreased from February to March, according to Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.

‘More checkpoints, more buses’—Mexico intensifies its migrant crackdown

Analysts interpret the busing program as a response to the influx of migrants from Venezuela and other nations where Mexico, similar to the U.S., faces challenges in repatriating individuals. Requests for comments from Mexico’s foreign ministry, interior ministry, and immigration agency, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, went unanswered.

The scale of Mexico’s enforcement is reflected in the surge of migrant encounters leading to detention or shelter placement, rather than deportation. These instances soared to over 726,000 in 2023, as reported by Mexico’s interior ministry, up from less than 179,000 in 2021. In the first two months of the year alone, over 230,000 such encounters were recorded.

Among those affected was Melgar.

On a tranquil Tuesday in April, as other migrants engaged in activities around the shelter or enjoyed their breakfast, Melgar sat in solitude on a bench in the courtyard, her face breaking into a smile. Her perseverance had paid off—after more than four months, she had finally arrived at the U.S. border.

As Melgar took her well-deserved rest, Sister Isabel Turcios, the shelter’s supervisor, conducted a tour for a group of American visitors. Medical volunteers had set up a makeshift clinic in the open air of the courtyard. The shelter was providing refuge to 108 migrants that day—a stark contrast to the numbers from the previous year, observed Turcios.

In December, Piedras Negras and other locations near the border saw a daily influx of thousands. During this period, U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the American side recorded an unprecedented monthly count of migrant encounters, reaching 301,981.

In the same timeframe, President Biden and President López Obrador engaged in a discussion over the phone, deliberating on “additional enforcement actions,” which led to Biden sending a delegation of high-ranking negotiators to Mexico City.

By the time mid-April arrived, the number of checkpoints had significantly increased. According to Sister Turcios, who had spoken with many migrants, Mexican officials had established no fewer than six immigration checkpoints between Monterrey and the Piedras Negras border. The journey had become increasingly difficult, even for her, a Salvadoran nun.

Sister Turcios explained, “The decision was made by the authorities to implement more checkpoints and deploy more buses to transport migrants southward.” She attributed the decline in numbers to these measures and the concerted efforts to detain migrants.

She clarified that the decrease in Texas’ migrant numbers was not due to the barbed wire but rather because those who navigated through Mexico’s checkpoints continued to find ways to bypass the barriers.

On the same day, Mike Banks, Texas’ inaugural “border czar,” ascended the riverbank in Eagle Pass, Texas, to rally his forces stationed in Shelby Park—a focal point in Texas’ overt confrontation with the Biden administration over border control.

Navigating through coils of concertina wire, Banks sustained minor injuries. He pointed out that these small cuts on his arm demonstrated the distinction between the skin-grabbing concertina wire and the more severe razor wire. He emphasized that such “tactical infrastructure” is instrumental in curbing illegal border crossings into Texas.

Banks asserted to USA TODAY, “If it weren’t for our actions in Texas, the numbers wouldn’t be as they are now.” He, alongside Governor Greg Abbott, credits the state’s $11 billion Operation Lone Star for the noticeable reduction in migration along Texas’ 1,254-mile border with Mexico. The data, they claim, speaks for itself.

Compared to the broader border region, Texas experienced a more pronounced decline in migrant crossings in the year’s first quarter, while California witnessed an uptick, as per CBP data.

Banks, referencing the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, noted, “Currently, we’re seeing a few hundred migrants daily, as opposed to the 4,000 to 6,000 in this park alone last year.” He concluded, “The deterrent effect is evident, and Texas will continue to safeguard its borders.”

In solidarity, 16 other Republican-led states have dispatched military and law enforcement personnel to bolster Operation Lone Star, as confirmed by the governor’s office spokesperson.

Moreover, Texas has sought to distribute the border crisis nationwide: Abbott’s initiative has transported over 112,700 migrants to cities governed by Democrats.

While Texas provides migrants with optional bus transportation, Mexican authorities leave them with no alternative.

During a recent visit to Eagle Pass, Banks, who serves as an advisor to the governor, addressed a contingent of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers clad in camouflage. He also shared light-hearted moments with Texas highway patrol officers seeking respite from the heat.

The riverside was tranquil, save for two Honduran individuals who had previously been at Turcios’ shelter. They were seen navigating the U.S. riverbank, searching for an entry point through the concertina wire.

Melgar, a mother of three and a seamstress by trade, had spent years in Costa Rica earning a livelihood that was unattainable in her homeland of El Salvador.

When the employment opportunities in her homeland evaporated, she returned. Yet, by December, the financial burden of her teenagers’ education compelled her to set off for Mexico, with the ultimate goal of reaching the United States.

Melgar recounted that her first encounter with Mexican immigration was in Puebla’s historic heart, where agents in their distinctive brown attire detained her. Her journey was halted a second time in Torreon, an industrial city in the north, and once again in Monterrey, the affluent commercial center just south of the Texas border.

After each apprehension, she found herself transported to a detention facility in Mexico’s southern region, where she would be temporarily held before being set free.

Undeterred, Melgar embarked on her fourth endeavor, evading numerous checkpoints by hitching a ride on a freight train and enduring a grueling trek across the parched desert landscape. She described enduring “endless days and nights filled with biting cold, scorching heat, and the pangs of hunger and thirst.”

She attempted to secure a legal border crossing through the CBP One app, yet as of her last update, she was still awaiting confirmation.

“I’m in a state of anticipation,” she conveyed via WhatsApp from the shelter last week, hopeful for a swift resolution. “With a bit of divine favor, it should materialize shortly.”

The duration of Mexico’s stringent immigration measures remains uncertain, as such crackdowns typically do not persist for extended periods.

“The truth is, Mexico’s actions have significantly increased the difficulty of reaching southern Texas,” observed Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy director at the American Immigration Council. “We’re witnessing a major shift due to Mexico’s enforcement, which may soon start to wane.”

Signs of this enforcement easing are already emerging, particularly around 500 miles northwest of the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras corridor.

In recent times, Ciudad Juárez, situated opposite El Paso, Texas, has seen a surge in migrant arrivals, escalating tensions at this particular border juncture.

Data from the El Paso Border Patrol Sector indicates a slight rise in daily migrant encounters, climbing from 940 earlier in the month to 1,025 as of the last count.

In a notable incident earlier in the month, over 140 migrants overcame the layers of concertina wire on the El Paso riverbank and engaged with Texas military personnel. Subsequently, they faced indictments for misdemeanor riot participation by a local grand jury.

Then, just last week, a freight train originating from the outskirts of Mexico City made its way into Ciudad Juárez. Crowded with hundreds of individuals, if it paused at the military and immigration checkpoint, it was not held back.

The adults clung to their young or provided shade with blankets until the train decelerated. Then, mere blocks from the U.S. frontier, they disembarked to contemplate their forthcoming steps.

Source: US Today