MEXICO CITY — A month after President Joe Biden’s administration said it was expanding its humanitarian parole program for migrants from certain countries, Mexican officials warn it’s too early to claim success, even as the number of migrants reaching the border has plummeted.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Roberto Velasco, a top diplomat and chief of the North America bureau at the Mexican Foreign Ministry, highlighted the drastic drop — as much as a 97% decline — in the number of migrants journeying through Mexico from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti.
Biden announced on Jan. 5 that the U.S. government is expanding humanitarian passage monthly for as many as 30,000 people from those four countries. But people from those countries who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally will be turned away.
Under the humanitarian program, the immigrants must have an eligible sponsor and pass a vetting process to come to the U.S. for up to two years and receive work authorization.
Since Biden’s announcement, encounters across the southwest border with people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela dropped from a seven-day average of 3,367 per day on Dec. 11 to a seven-day average of just 115 on Jan. 24, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“The program has been very successful, but it’s too early to declare any kind of victory, because we’re facing a dynamic phenomenon,” Velasco said. “The countries of origin, the circumstances, the network of smugglers and their ability to constantly adapt to government policies — all are important factors to consider as we go forward.”
Already, migrants from other countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, are on the rise, Velasco said.
When Biden announced the immigration policy shift, Mexico agreed to take back 30,000 people a month who come to the U.S. border without proper documentation.
That marks the United States' growing reliance on Mexico in managing the northward flow of migrants headed to the Texas-Mexico border. Mexico’s role has expanded from a “sending” country to one “managing” global migration, said Adam Isacson, a security and migration analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“I think Mexico is pretty comfortable now in this role as co-enforcer for the United States,” a role similar to ones played by Turkey and Spain with migrant flows to the European Union, Isacson said.
“Mexico will still have nationalist rhetoric, and they’ll still insist they have a different approach toward migration than the United States does,” he said. “But deep down, it sure seems like a lot of people in the [Mexican] government believe in deterrence.”
And that means the country’s leverage with the U.S. is increasing, said Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “Mexico is not powerless,” he said. “Mexico is in a position where (it) can decide how to take better advantage of migration to Mexico and through Mexico.”
Velasco disputes that Mexico is playing the role of a country that “processes” migrants for the U.S. He doesn’t believe Mexico should be locked into any formal agreement on migration. “Our idea is still that Mexico wants to retain its sovereign capacity to react to U.S. migratory decisions unilaterally,” he said.
For instance, in April 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians headed from abroad to the U.S.-Mexico border. After the U.S. allowed them under a “humanitarian parole” program, their numbers at the border dropped from more than 20,000 to 375 in May.
Last summer, when the number of Venezuelans exploded along the Texas-Mexico border, particularly El Paso, Velasco and his team pressed the Biden administration to designate them with the title of “humanitarian parole,” he said.
“It was Mexico’s proposal to apply the Ukrainian model to other nationalities,” Velasco said. “That has been the basis of our engagement in that sense. And that’s why we have never agreed to sign any sort of agreement with the U.S., including (being) some kind of processing county.”
For two years, a historic humanitarian crisis has overwhelmed immigration officials and entire communities, particularly along the Texas-Mexico border. In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded 2.2 million arrests, a record number. In December, immigration authorities encountered about 7,000 to 9,000 individuals daily.
A surge in Cuban and Nicaraguan arrivals at the U.S. border with Mexico in December led to the highest number of illegal border crossings recorded during any month of Biden’s presidency, authorities said last month.
The extraordinary influx came shortly before Biden introduced measures on Jan. 5 to deter Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. U.S. authorities stopped migrants 251,487 times along the Mexican border in December, up 7% from 234,896 times in November and up 40% from 179,253 times in December 2021, Customs and Border Protection told The Associated Press.
Last year, between late summer and winter, El Paso was ground zero for migrants massing at the border. Then, in January, the numbers in the El Paso sector dropped to an average of 929 daily encounters, down from a peak of 2,150 in December, according to a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman.
There’s reason to be cautious: Winter is when migration is historically low, said Ruiz.
“Before the announcement on Jan. 5, the numbers were already decreasing because of the holiday and Christmas travel, the kind of lull that we always see in every year,” Ruiz said.
Criticism from right and left
Biden’s humanitarian parole program has received criticism from conservatives and progressives alike. By instituting a parole program, the United States is abandoning its historic role as a nation offering asylum to those being persecuted around the world, Isacson said.
The migrants targeted by the parole program are among the “most threatened, vulnerable people who just don’t meet the requirement,” said Isacson. noting many, particularly Venezuelans, have no sustained networks of families and friends in the U.S.
So far, more than 800 Nicaraguans, more than 4,700 Cubans and about 2,000 Haitians have been approved for travel — most of them applying from their native country, bypassing the dangerous trek through Mexico.
“The total figure of 7,500 isn’t exactly 30,000 a month,” said Isacson.
“The president hasn’t solved the problem,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, in a statement. “He’s just swept it under the rug, and he’s arguably made it worse. This crisis is complex, but the solution isn’t. The administration needs to engage with Congress and enforce our immigration laws that are on the books.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he has long called on Congress to “fix a broken immigration system.”
In Mexico City, officials defend the program and bristle at the criticism, particularly from Republicans who, Velasco said, have long treated Mexico and migrants as the “bogeymen, that’s the common theme and it will continue as we head toward 2024,” referring to the U.S. presidential election.
“Mexico is a key strategic partner of the United States in many different things: managing border security, migration, also in terms of trade…” Velasco said. “When you have a partner that is so fundamental in so many ways for your country, well, maybe you should be more respectful to that partner.”
Has the migration problem been fixed? “That depends on your definition of fixing the problem,” Velasco said. From Mexico’s perspective, the parole program is allowing migrants to cross “in a safe, humanely, orderly way” and it’s “taking away business from dangerous human smugglers and organized criminals in the entire region,” he said.
“It’s also driving people away from the border, which always creates its own peril,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s a successful approach. And we’re certainly very hopeful about the results shown so far.”
In Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Antony Leal, his wife Roxana Rojas, and three daughters, ages 9 months to 4 years, all from Venezuela, stood on street corners and sold candy. They need 100 pesos a day to pay for a room in the city, as they wait to see if they are approved for humanitarian parole.
They applaud the program, “because we want to come in legally,” Leal said. But they are concerned about how the application system works. “All we can do is hope, work hard and keep believing.”