Updated 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Migrating North, but to Mexico, Not the U.S.

Wendy no longer worries that when her sons leave the apartment in the morning, they may never make it to school. Memories of the gangs that haunted their lives in Honduras are slowly receding into the past.

The family fled its home last year after gang members tried to recruit the boys, threatening them with death if they did not join. They received asylum in Mexico, making them among the country’s newest residents.

“It’s not easy — as you can imagine — starting again,” Wendy said in an interview in this small city in northeastern Mexico, where the family decided to settle. “But we are better here because we are safer.”

The United States has long been the dream destination for many Latin American migrants, whether fleeing poverty, political unrest, natural disaster or violence. But now a growing number of migrants are putting down roots in Mexico, legally or illegally, instead of using it as a thruway to the United States.

They have many reasons for staying here. Crossing the Mexico-United States border has become increasingly difficult, migrants say, especially with rising smugglers’ fees and tougher enforcement. Some are deterred by the abundance of dangers that lurk on the route through Mexico. Some believe it might be easier to qualify for some form of legal status in Mexico than in the United States.

In recent weeks, yet another factor has begun to weigh on some northbound migrants: President Trump. Even if all the details of his recent policy declarations on immigration have not yet permeated the migration grapevine, his longstanding promises to restrict immigration have fueled a growing perception among migrants that the United States is becoming far less hospitable to immigrants, documented and undocumented alike.

“Here, at least, the people like you, they help you,” said Josué, 31, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras staying at Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter here in Saltillo. “Why would you want to go to a country that doesn’t like you?”

(Like other migrants interviewed, Josué requested partial anonymity, in his case because of his undocumented status. Others said they feared being tracked down by their persecutors.)

Josué came to Mexico about a year ago with the intention of “passing through” on his way to the United States, he said. But he was able to find work and liked Mexico enough, so he decided to stay for a while before resuming his trip.

With the rise of Mr. Trump, however, and the president’s vows to harden the borders of the United States and step up deportations, Josué has decided to remain in Mexico for the foreseeable future.

“In my case, I’d like to be in the United States to work,” he said during a recent interview at the shelter. “But this president, he doesn’t want anybody because he doesn’t like anybody.” Josué is now exploring ways to gain legal status in Mexico.

The number of migrants deciding to stay in Mexico is still thought to be a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands using the country as a transit corridor to enter the United States.

But the growing attractiveness of Mexico is plainly reflected in the country’s asylum program. Last year, more than 8,100 foreigners applied for asylum, nearly three times as many as in 2015, and more than 15 times as many as five years ago, according to statistics from the Mexican government.

At the same time, Mexico, under pressure from immigrants’ advocates, has been granting asylum at increasingly higher rates, in part because of improvements to its intake and processing system. In 2016, 63 percent of applicants, not including those who dropped their cases during the review process, received asylum or some other form of protection, up from 46 percent in 2015.

Most applicants in the last few years have been from El Salvador and Honduras, which have been convulsing with gang violence.

The increase in asylum petitions in Mexico is also in part due to the rise in detentions on the country’s southern flank, an effect of an American-backed plan begun in 2014 to better control the flow of people and goods crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border. After being stopped by the immigration authorities, some detainees have come to learn that they may be eligible for asylum, either through word of mouth from other detainees or during screenings with immigration officials.

“Many come here not knowing that the experiences they’ve had fit perfectly with asylum,” said Javier Martínez Hernández, a lawyer at Casa del Migrante, which helped more than 100 migrants apply for refugee status in 2016, more than double the number in 2015.

If the current trends continue, United Nations officials predict, Mexico could receive more than 20,000 asylum claims this year.

But advocacy and human rights groups believe that the population of migrants potentially eligible for protection in Mexico is much higher.

Many of the more than 147,000 foreigners deported from Mexico last year, for instance, might not have known that they qualified and were not given the opportunity to make their case before being deported, they say.

In the past year, the Mexican government has made a number of improvements to its asylum system, including increasing its staff and modifying the screening process to ensure that eligible migrants have a chance to apply, officials said.

The Mexican authorities have also begun releasing asylum seekers from detention while they await the resolution of their cases, a process that often takes three or more months, and have improved applicants’ access to humanitarian aid and psychological and legal counseling, advocates said.

“The Mexican government has recognized that this is increasingly a refugee situation,” said Mark Manly, the Mexico representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He added that the Mexican authorities had been making “real progress” in improving processing and services for asylum seekers.

The government and the United Nations have sponsored a pilot program in Saltillo to help integrate asylum seekers into Mexican society. Begun in August, the program has so far involved 38 asylum recipients. Of those, 26 remain in the program, while the others have left and moved elsewhere

Many of the more than 147,000 foreigners deported from Mexico last year, for instance, might not have known that they qualified and were not given the opportunity to make their case before being deported, they say.

In the past year, the Mexican government has made a number of improvements to its asylum system, including increasing its staff and modifying the screening process to ensure that eligible migrants have a chance to apply, officials said.

The Mexican authorities have also begun releasing asylum seekers from detention while they await the resolution of their cases, a process that often takes three or more months, and have improved applicants’ access to humanitarian aid and psychological and legal counseling, advocates said.

“The Mexican government has recognized that this is increasingly a refugee situation,” said Mark Manly, the Mexico representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He added that the Mexican authorities had been making “real progress” in improving processing and services for asylum seekers.

The government and the United Nations have sponsored a pilot program in Saltillo to help integrate asylum seekers into Mexican society. Begun in August, the program has so far involved 38 asylum recipients. Of those, 26 remain in the program, while the others have left and moved elsewhere