NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — The bus carrying dozens of Central Americans from the Texas border arrived in this northern Mexican city late at night and pulled up next to the station.
Men and women disembarked with children in their arms or staggering sleepily by their side, looked around fearfully and wondered what to do.
The Associated Press witnessed multiple such busloads in recent days carrying at least 450 Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans from Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, to Monterrey, where they are left to fend for themselves with no support on housing, work or schooling for children, who appear to make up about half the group.
Mexico has received some 20,000 asylum seekers returned to await U.S. immigration court dates under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, colloquially known as “remain in Mexico.”
But there had been no sign of such large-scale moving of people away from the border before now, after the program expanded to Nuevo Laredo in violence- and cartel-plagued Tamaulipas, a state where the U.S. State Department warns against all travel due to kidnappings and other crime.
This account is based on in-person interviews with more than 20 migrants who made the two-hour, 130-mile journey south to the industrial city in the week since the new practice began.
In response to a request for comment on the AP’s findings, the National Immigration Institute, or INM for its initials in Spanish, said in a two-paragraph statement that the agency cooperates with consular authorities and all levels of government to attend to returnees.
It said Mexico abides by international law and is working to upgrade shelters and immigration stations “to improve the conditions in which migrants await their processes in national territory.”
Unlike asylum seekers who wait in line — often for months — to file claims in the U.S. and then return to the Mexican border cities where they were before, all those taken to Monterrey who spoke with AP said they had crossed illegally and spent several days in U.S. detention centers before being returned with a court date.
They said they had not asked for asylum. Some asked to be returned to their home countries, but were told that going to Mexico or remaining in detention were the only options.
“This is the document that they are giving to us to take us away,” said Antonio Herrera, a Honduran policeman, explaining that he had asked U.S. immigration authorities to deport him because his 7-year-old daughter was ill but they sent him to Mexico instead.
U.S. authorities, those interviewed agreed, told them the Mexican government would offer them work, schooling for their children and health care while they waited. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
But the reality back in Mexico turned out to be different.
At the Nuevo Laredo crossing, the returnees were met by waiting Mexican immigration officials who handed them documents allowing them to work and move about the country.
Without further explanation they were then loaded at an immigration station parking lot onto buses apparently chartered from the companies TuriStar and Futura.
It’s not clear what agency may have footed the bill, and the companies did not respond to requests for comment.
The migrants went willingly knowing the dangers that lurk in Tamaulipas, where organized crime groups have been known to extort, kidnap and kill people like them.
In one notorious incident from 2010, 72 were massacred in the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas.
But in Monterrey they found a city where shelters are already overflowing and it quickly became clear that it would be up to them to make do as best as they could.
“From here as people say, save yourself however you can,” said Neftali Cantillano, a Honduran migrant outside the bus.
Officials in the communities involved say they’re overwhelmed by immigration and in the dark
José Martín Carmona, head of Tamaulipas’ governmental Institute for Migrants, acknowledged that the state had refused to receive more migrants, saying it lacks resources.
“As we see the arrival of the deadlines to this agreements (Between Mexico and U.S.) we saw ourselves in need, especially the Tamaulipas State, in making a declaration to say that we will not receive anybody in Tamaulipas,” said Carmona.
Meanwhile, U.S. border officers continue to train just in case there is assault at the international bridge on the border between Mexico and U.S at Nuevo Laredo.