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Central American Migration Also Tests Mexico’s Humanitarian System

Since 2014, the United States has seen a significant increase in the number of families and unaccompanied children who have sought protection in the country from Central America. While this trend has tested the limits of the U.S. immigration system’s humanitarian and enforcement components in forms like the migrant caravans, it has also presented challenges for Mexican authorities.

Although a majority of migrants still move through Mexico to seek protection in the United States, Mexican government data shows that a growing number of individuals from El Salvador and Honduras, as well as Venezuela, have applied for and received humanitarian protections in Mexico. As Mexico has shifted from a transit country to a receiving country of migrants, the new influx of refugees1 has pushed the limits of Mexico’s humanitarian immigration system, requiring attention from Mexican, international, and U.S. authorities to stave off scenarios where the system’s fragility results in even more individuals coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A review of data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) finds that an increasing number of individuals have applied for refugee status in Mexico since 2015, especially from Central American countries. As Figure 1 shows, the number of applications grew by 1,220 percent between 2013 and 2018 as more individuals from El Salvador and Honduras submitted claims for these protections in Mexico. The increase in applications also coincided with a growing number of Venezuelans2 who sought protection in Mexico due to the country’s political and economic crisis that has driven its citizens to flee to other Latin American countries. The increase in the number of applications has generated a backlog of these cases: 12,417 cases remain in review as of December 2018.

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Figure 1: Number of Refugee Applications Filed in Mexico (2013–2018) 

Source: COMAR (1) (2) (3)

The increase in the number of refugee requests has corresponded with dramatic increases in the number of humanitarian protections granted. The number of applicants who received refugee status increased by nearly 1,400 percent between 2013 and 2017. As Figure 2 shows, the number of individuals who abandoned their cases also increased between 2015 and 2017, which could suggest that individuals remained undocumented in Mexico, returned to their home countries, or moved to the United States after initially trying to seek refugee status in Mexico.3

More applicants have also received “complementary protection” status, a separate type of humanitarian protection that the Mexican government can grant to applicants who do not meet the standards for refugee status. Individuals receive this protection if the Mexican government determines that they face the threat of death, torture, ill treatment, or other types of cruel inhumane treatment upon their return to their countries. As Figure 2 shows, the number of individuals receiving this form of humanitarian protection grew by over 4,700 percent between 2013 and 2017.

Figure 2: Outcomes of Refugee Requests Filed in Mexico (2013—2018)

Note: the 2018 data in Figures 2 through 4 only covers January through September of that year
Source: COMAR (1) (2) (3)

The COMAR data shows that most grants of refugee status by Mexico were to Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans. As Figure 3 shows, the number of individuals from Honduras and El Salvador who received refugee status peaked in 2016 when 1,254 Hondurans and 1,412 Salvadorans were approved. In 2017, Venezuelans emerged as the largest group of refugee beneficiaries, with 2,715 approvals that year. Given that the Mexican government has not published the final figures for 2018, it is likely that the number of Venezuelan refugees may increase.

Figure 3: Nationalities that Have Received Refugee Status in Mexico (2013—2017)

Source: COMAR (1) (2) (3)

Additionally, the Mexican government has issued an increasing number of other types of humanitarian-based visas, albeit at much lower levels than refugee and complementary protection designation rates. As Figure 5 shows, the number of individuals who received a visa as “visitor for humanitarian reasons” increased from 623 in 2015 to 13,129 in 2018. The Mexican government introduced this visa in 2012 to allow victims of crime and unaccompanied children to live and work in Mexico for a year-long period, which they can continuously renew every year. In 2018, the Mexican government started issuing more of these visas to Central American migrants who traveled with large caravans heading to the U.S.-Mexico border and wanted a protected status to remain in the country.

Figure 4: Nationalities That Have Received Complementary Protection Status in Mexico (2013—2017)

Source: COMAR (1) (2) (3)

Additionally, the Mexican government has issued an increasing number of other types of humanitarian-based visas, albeit at much lower levels than refugee and complementary protection designation rates. As Figure 5 shows, the number of individuals who received a visa as “visitor for humanitarian reasons” increased from 623 in 2015 to 13,129 in 2018. The Mexican government introduced this visa in 2012 to allow victims of crime and unaccompanied children to live and work in Mexico for a year-long period, which they can continuously renew every year. In 2018, the Mexican government started issuing more of these visas to Central American migrants who traveled with large caravans heading to the U.S.-Mexico border and wanted a protected status to remain in the country.

Figure 5: Number of “Visitor for Humanitarian Reasons” Visas Issued (2013—2018)

Source: COMAR (1) (2) (3) (4)

The Mexican data has two major implications for U.S. foreign and immigration policy. First, Mexico has clearly shifted from serving as a transit country for Central American migrants seeking humanitarian protection in the United States to one that grants humanitarian protections in its own territory. While Mexico has shed its status as a primary source of migrants to the United States, this latest transition is more challenging since it places greater burdens on the country’s humanitarian protection system. As some reports have noted, COMAR lacks the staffing and resources to work through its current refugee case backlog, meaning that migrants will have to wait longer to learn whether they will receive protection. Given that conditions in the Northern Triangle and Venezuela will continue to drive individuals to leave these countries for the foreseeable future, the increasing numbers of refugee applicants risk overwhelming Mexico’s fragile humanitarian system—and sending more migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The challenges facing COMAR also point to a broader issue regarding the capacity of institutions in the United States, Mexico, and Central America to effectively manage migrant flows in the region. The United States should have a vested interest in improving the capacity and integrity of immigration institutions in Mexico, as well as its own immigration system, to effectively and efficiently manage this new migration flow. The United States and Mexico also must work with their Central American partners to ensure that these countries have political and administrative institutions that can effectively govern, including developing and implementing security programs to combat the rampant crime and violence. Additionally, longer term investments are needed in the development of strong, job-creating economies that can provide opportunities outside of gangs to the disproportionate number of young people of prime migration age to reduce push factors. While these measures may not generate immediate effects at the U.S.-Mexico border, they will ensure that the region has strong institutions that can withstand these dramatic migratory shifts and strengthen the integrity of the U.S. immigration system and the nation’s borders.