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Immigration

Mexico's invisible wall: vast majority of migrants are deported before they even reach the U.S. border

Authorities deported 93 percent of Central American migrants headed to the United States in the first four months of 2016.

In the first four months of this year, Mexican immigration authorities deported nine out of every 10 detained Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran migrants, according to a Univision analysis of Mexican interior ministry figures.

During that period, a total of 43,506 nationals from the three nations, which make up the Northern Triangle of Central America, were returned by Mexico to their home countries.

“What the National Migration Institute does well is to detain and deport,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration. “If you are detained in Mexico, your chances of receiving some type of support, of applying for asylum, are very low.”

Guatemalans were most frequently deported from Mexico during the four-month period: 96 percent of those detained were sent back. Around 92 percent of Hondurans were deported, followed by 87 percent of Salvadorans, according to the analysis.

Those high percentages have been constant across the same period since 2013, when the interior ministry began posting detailed figures online. The rates remained steady in 2015, when the number of Central American migrants detained in Mexico nearly doubled.


Central American migrants deported by Mexican authorities
Detained
Deported
Source: Univision Data and Mexico Interior Ministry | UNIVISION

Last year, Mexico tightened controls along its border with Guatemala under the so-called Southern Border Plan – which included budget increases for the National Migration Institute (INM) – following the 2014 crisis that saw 68,541 unaccompanied migrant children detained by U.S. authorities along the border with Mexico.

“That's why the U.S. government pays the Mexican government,” said Alberto Solalinde, a Catholic priest who helps Central American migrants and a critic of Mexico's migration policies. “That's why the INM exists, to be at the service of the United States and act like a gringo agency, to deport every migrant who comes before it.”

Escaping the gangs

Just in the past few weeks, Solalinde has helped about 50 children and teenagers who left their homes in the Northern Triangle, overwhelmed by the dangers of entrenched violence there.

“The situation has gotten worse: not only the economy but the violence, too,” he said. “That has made the situation impossible for some families with teenagers who are being pushed to join the gangs. And they don't want to. They are leaving because they can't stay in their home countries, especially in Honduras and El Salvador.”

About half the 50 minors he helped in recent days continued on toward the United States, hoping to reunite with relatives there. Central American migrants will continue arriving in Mexico by the thousands unless conditions in the Northern Triangle improve, he said.

In the first four months of this year, 9,636 Central American minors were detained in Mexico, according to the official figures, and 85 percent were returned to their countries after immigration hearings. That was lower than the 95 percent who were deported in 2015, out of 9,703 detained.

“Ten years ago, when we interviewed women in immigration centers, many of them were leaving their small children with relatives. Today, we're seeing that they are not leaving them behind,” said Kuhner. “They say, 'I can't leave them. It's very dangerous.'”


Why can't migrants apply for asylum?

Seeking asylum or other kinds of protection in Mexico isn't easy for the Central Americans. “Getting protection is very difficult, because there's something called the Mexican Refugee Aid Commission, which has a very small budget,” said Kuhner.

The ability of the commission, known as COMAR, to help refugees pales in comparison to the enormous size of the National Migration Institute, Kuhner added.

“If a person reaches a shelter, has never had any contact with the INM, and decides not to continue the trek [to the U.S. border], then we have a lot of options for helping them to seek asylum” because they haven't been detained, she explained.

Migrants have 15 days to apply for asylum, and COMAR then has 45 days to interview them and review their request.

“The percentage of accepted applications is growing, but it's still a very small group that has access to this process,” said Kuhner.


2015 asylum requests from Central American migrants
Migrants can request asylum through the Mexican Refugee Aid Commission. But only a fraction apply.
Country of originSolicitantesDidn't complete the processAccepted requestsReceived additional protection
Honduras1,56050537764
El Salvador1,47539347266
Guatemala10233277
SOURCE: Mexican Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR) | UNIVISION

In 2015, for example, 1,560 Hondurans requested asylum and 377 received it, according to COMAR figures. About 505 Hondurans gave up on asylum requests halfway through the process.

“People get tired. They get frustrated. The requirements are very tough and often they give up on their applications because it takes too long,” Kuhner said. “They prefer to return to their countries, and try again later.”

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