MATAMOROS, Mexico — A ragged migrant tent camp next to the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, is a long way from the country’s National Palace, where a top level U.S. delegation met with Mexico’s president seeking more action to curb the surge of migrants reaching the U.S. border.
But as Mexican officials in Matamoros worked with bulldozers Wednesday to clear out what they claimed were abandoned tents, it was probably a sign of things to come.
The United States has given clear signs — by temporarily closing key border rail crossings into Texas — that it needs Mexico to do more to stop migrants hopping freight cars, buses and trucks to the border.
Mexico, desperate to get those crossings reopened to its manufactured goods, is starting to give signs it will crack down a bit.
That was on display in Matamoros as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City.
Migrants set up the encampment in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas in late 2022. It once held as many as 1,500 migrants, but many tents were vacated in recent months as migrants waded across the river to reach the United States.
Segismundo Doguín, the head of the local office of Mexico’s immigration agency, said, “What we are doing is removing any tents that we see are empty.”
But one Honduran migrant who would give only his first name, José, claimed some of the 200 remaining migrants had been practically forced to leave the camp when the clearance operation began late Tuesday.
“They ran us out,” he said, saying migrants were given short notice to move their tents and belongings out of the way and felt intimidated by the bulldozers moving through the tents. “You had to run for your life to avoid an accident.”
Some migrants moved into a fenced-in area of the encampment where immigration officers said they could relocate, but fear pervaded.
About 70 migrants flung themselves into the river Tuesday night and crossed into the U.S. They remained trapped for hours along the riverbank beneath the layers of concertina wire set up by orders of the Texas governor.
Few options exist for the migrants asked to leave the encampment, said Glady Cañas, founder of a Matamoros-based nongovernmental group, Ayudandoles a Triunfar, or Helping Them Win.
“The truth is that the shelters are saturated,” Cañas said.
Several River Crossing Drownings
She was working at the encampment Wednesday afternoon, walking through the tents and encouraging migrants to avoid crossing illegally into the U.S., especially after several people drowned in the last few days attempting to swim the river.
This month, as many as 10,000 migrants were arrested daily on the southwest U.S. border. The U.S. has struggled to process thousands of migrants at the border, and house them once they reach northern cities.
Mexican industries were stung last week when the U.S. briefly closed two vital Texas railway crossings, arguing that border patrol agents had to be reassigned to deal with the surge. A non-rail crossing remained closed at Lukeville, Arizona, and border operations were partially suspended at San Diego and Nogales, Arizona.
Foreign Relations Secretary Alicia Bárcena said following the talks in Mexico City that the Mexican government’s priority is getting the United States to reopen border crossings closed because of the migrant surge.
“We spoke about the importance of the border, and about the economic relationship … the importance of reopening the border crossings, that is a priority for us,” Bárcena said following the meeting, which was also attended by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall.
Mexico already has over 32,000 soldiers and National Guard troopers — about 11% of its total forces — assigned to enforcing immigration laws.
But the shortcomings of Mexico’s effort were on display Tuesday, when National Guard members made no attempt to stop about 6,000 migrants, many from Central America and Venezuela, from walking through Mexico’s main inland immigration inspection point in southern Chiapas state near the Guatemala border.
In the past, Mexico has let such migrant caravans go through, trusting they would tire themselves out walking along the highway.
By Wednesday, Lazara Padrón Molina, 46, from Cuba was sick and exhausted. The caravan set out from the city of Tapachula on Sunday and had walked about 45 miles (75 kilometers) through the heat to Escuintla in southern Chiapas state.
“The route is too long to continue walking. Why don’t they just give us documents so that we could get a bus or a taxi?” Padrón Molina said. “Look at my feet,” she said, showing blisters. “I can’t go on anymore.”
But wearing the migrants out — by obliging Venezuelans and others to hike through the jungle of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama or corralling migrants off passenger buses in Mexico — no longer appears to work.
So many migrants have been hopping freight trains through Mexico that one of the country’s two major railroads suspended trains in September because of safety concerns. Police raids to pull migrants off rail cars — the kind of action Mexico took a decade ago — might be one thing the American delegation would like to see.
The Texas railway closures put a chokehold on freight moving from Mexico to the U.S. as well as grain needed to feed Mexican livestock moving south.
López Obrador says he is willing to help, but wants the United States to send more development aid to migrants’ home countries, reduce or eliminate sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, and start a U.S.-Cuba dialogue.