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Migrants waiting in or expelled to Mexico continue to face abuse, danger as Title 42 ends

Title 42 expulsions are ending. But Mexico has agreed to continue accepting migrants from Central America, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela being sent back from the U.S. Many worry that and other policies will continue putting migrants at risk.

Migrants and asylum seekers waiting in and sent back to Mexico under Title 42 have faced abuses by officials, attacks by organized crime groups and crowded and unsanitary living conditions. But as the policy ends, many are worried new rules will continue to block many people from safety.

“We’re going to see repetition of large numbers of people stranded or returned to a situation in which they're facing danger, and of course lack of access to a lot of basic resources,” said Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico with the think tank Washington Office on Latin America.

Mexico’s agreement to continue receiving non-Mexican migrants sent back from the U.S. and new policies being implemented to replace Title 42 are likely to continue keeping many migrants stuck in Mexico’s northern border cities.

“People are finding themselves in the most vulnerable moment of their lives trying to seek protection and really caught between a rock and a hard place,” Brewer said. “A lot of people are going to be left with few to no options reasonably to seek asylum.”

In part, that’s because of new policies severely restricting access to asylumin the U.S. And those hoping to seek protection in Mexico will also find themselves up against an overwhelmed immigration and asylum system. People arriving at Mexico’s southern border are also experiencing backlogs and delays as they line up to apply for temporary visas.

In response to the growing number of migrants and asylum seekers in the country, Mexico has also doubled down on the militarization of its borders. Record numbers of migrants detentions, Brewer said, have led to serious abuses, including more than 40 migrants killed in a fire at a government-run detention facility in Ciudad Juarez.

“That is the kind of situation we’re concerned about.” said Pedro De Velasco, director of education and advocacy for the binational migrant aid and advocacy group Kino Border Initiative in Nogales.

“Mexico is not a completely unsafe country,” he said. “But it is when you’re a migrant.”

That’s because organized crime takes advantage of the desperation and uncertainty migrants experience, he said, calling gangs the “number one beneficiary” of Title 42.

Just this week, Sonoran officials reported rescuing135 migrants in the border town of San Luis Rio Colorado who had been kidnapped. Attorney General Claudia Indira Contreras said Tuesday that many of the victims reported that their families were being extorted for money in order for their safe release.

“In Sonora we don’t accept that kind of abuse of migrants,” Contreras said, following the arrests of five of the alleged kidnappers.

But De Velasco said it’s clear that Mexico cannot guarantee the safety of migrants in its country, and current  immigration policies often force people into dangerous situations.

“No matter how many times you throw in the word humanely, if you’re not taking into account the people who are most impacted, you’re not doing it humanely,” De Velasco said.

Ending Title 42 is a positive step, he said, but the policiesreplacing it still leave migrants stuck in Mexico, vulnerable to kidnappings, robberies and extortion, and with few options to seek safety.

“It happens at every level - from authorities to organized crime,” said Blanca Lomeli, country director for Mexico with the refugee agency HIAS, which works with migrants in cities across Mexico, including in Nogales, Sonora. “And as long as policies continue the way they are right now, there are going to be more people on the streets, more difficulties and more vulnerabilities [for migrants] in Mexico.”

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.