By Verónica Martínez / La Verdad

Ciudad Juárez – Not long ago, Antonio worked as a policeman in Michoacán, one of the most violent states in Mexico. Now he’s at a shelter in Ciudad Juárez, along with his wife and 8-month-old baby, waiting to cross the border into the United States to flee his home country’s violence.

“The lack of safety, that is the main reason we had to migrate,” says the 25-year-old man as he rocks his baby to sleep in his arms at the shelter’s dining room chair.

Antonio, whose name was changed for his protection, said that as a police officer, he saw the cracks in a collapsed public safety system. Walking his beat was “gambling with my life each day,” he said. When he was threatened, he decided to leave everything behind and head north.

He’s not alone: Last fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly 800,700 encounters with undocumented Mexican migrants on its southern border – many of whom may have tried entering the United States more than once.

In the El Paso sector, which encompasses El Paso and all of New Mexico, CBP reported 125,656 encounters with Mexican nationals.

These numbers appear to contradict statements by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has said that the welfare benefits his administration offers have reduced the number of migrants who leave their communities in Mexico. He points to programs such as Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) and Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (Youth Building the Future), claiming some 30 million families receive support from such initiatives.

The programs don’t appear to have slowed the exodus of people from their communities, many driven away by violence and poverty.

Antonio and his wife, Rubi, are among migrants from across Mexico staying at the Mexican Migrant Oasis shelter in Ciudad Juárez. The couple says they fled violence in Michoacán and hope to seek asylum in the United States. (Rey R. Jauregui / La Verdad)

María Inés Barrios, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, attributes this to welfare programs focusing on social and financial development, which may only help the recipients economically.

“It’s possible the president is referring to economic migration, but these welfare programs have no impact on people being displaced internally. They are not people leaving for financial reasons; rather, they are fleeing places with high levels of violence,” Barrios said.

She describes how this increase in Mexican migrants arriving on the northern border began to be more notable in 2013. Migration research now indicates that there is a direct link between these waves of migrants and the levels of violence in some Mexican states such as Michoacán, Guerrero and Zacatecas.

There has been less attention on the increase in forced internal migration in Mexico because the focus has been on the thousands of people who were part migrant caravans from Central America since late 2018, Barrios said. 

Headed North, with Hope

Antonio and his wife, Rubí, have migrated twice, first leaving Guerrero in search of a higher standard of living in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán.

In Morelia, Antonio finished high school and went on to get a degree in law. He found better work opportunities there and stayed for 10 years.

Being from rural communities, Antonio’s parents were beneficiaries of Sembrando Vida, an agroforestry project that employs farmers to plant and harvest fruit trees for the equivalent of $300 a month. The project seeks to combat poverty in communities with limited environmental resources. 

Antonio and Rubí received scholarships from Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro, a program that helps adolescents who live in highly marginalized cities develop marketable skills. But Antonio claims criminal gangs take half the scholarship money so it becomes almost worthless.

“They’re development programs, but development can only happen if delinquency is combated and safety is reinforced,” he said.

Most recently, Antonio and Rubi left their home in Michoacán. Now they’re in Juárez, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border into the United States.

Families from across Mexico migrating north toward the U.S. stay at the Mexican Migrant Oasis shelter in Ciudad Juárez on Jan. 26. Pictured are Gustavo and María from Zacatecas, who asked their real names not be used. (Rey R. Jauregui / La Verdad)

Gustavo and María, whose names have been changed for their protection, for decades lived in peace in a village close to the city of General Francisco Murguía in Zacatecas.

Like many in the country’s central-northern region, the couple grew corn and beans, and they also bred goats. They never missed the chance to dance at parties in the village, whether at a quinceañera, wedding or birthday celebration.

Three years ago, the village was put on edge by violence perpetrated by criminal gangs. There are no more parties. No one leaves their home after 9 p.m. and sometimes armored trucks are heard racing through the village.

“Everyone wants to leave and everyone complains. Now we had to leave,” María, 58, said.

On Jan. 19, they arrived in Juárez and have been at a shelter planning to seek asylum in the United States where their daughter is now.

“We’d rather suffer here (at the shelter),” says Gustavo, 61, who left his co-op land and his work vehicle behind. His goats were left in the care of his brother. “Here, we sleep in peace while there, anyone who goes out after 9 p.m. gets picked up (by extortionists). Many are let go, but some are not.”

Young people in the Zacatecas agricultural village began to disappear and then criminal groups started extorting businesses. María was afraid their supply store would be threatened next.

“If we paid them what we earned, what would we have left to sell?” María said.

Voluntary vs. Forced Migration

Mexicans have been migrating to the United States for more than 160 years, Barrios said. But from the 1930s to the 1990s, the migrants had mostly been men traveling alone to work in the United States in what’s known as voluntary migration.

After 2006, the reasons Mexicans migrated started to change. Now, it’s not just for work – it’s fleeing from violence, a form of forced migration.

A woman washes clothes at the Mexican Migrant Oasis shelter in Ciudad Juárez on Jan. 26. She’s among several Mexican migrants at the shelter who hope to seek asylum in the United States. (Rey R. Jauregui / La Verdad)

Surveys by the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Temas Migratorios (Interdisciplinary Group on Issues of Migration) seek to understand the reasons why the Mexicans in Juárez shelters were migrating. 

The survey in 2019 and 2022 found that insecurity and violence were the main reasons cited. In 2022, 63% of the migrants indicated they left their communities due to threats, extortion and insecurity caused by drug trafficking. In 2019, that number reached 85%.

In contrast, reasons associated with poverty and work were cited by only 6% of those polled in 2019 and 4% in 2022.

In 2021, the number of internally displaced migrants not only increased noticeably, it set a record, according to the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C. (Mexican Commission on Defense and Advancement of Human Rights). 

The commission’s annual report, Episodios de Desplazamiento Interno Forzado Masivo en México, shows there were nearly 29,000 people displaced in 2021. The highest number before this was just over 22,000 in 2016.

The annual report also points to Michoacán, Chiapas and Zacatecas as the states with the highest number of migrants leaving because of violence, representing 85% of all displaced persons.

Families from across Mexico migrating north toward the U.S. stay at the Mexican Migrant Oasis shelter in Ciudad Juarez on Jan. 26. (Rey R. Jauregui / La Verdad Juarez)

Although forced displacement has been a prominent issue in Mexico, it has been ignored for decades, Barrios said. She said it’s not just an issue of human rights when people flee their communities, but a systemic problem as they travel because they are displaced even when they arrive at the next city. There is no resettlement program nor are their rights restored, she added.

Barrios warns that the number of displaced persons could grow because many stay in border cities hoping for changes to U.S. immigration policies in order to request asylum.

For Antonio, who is still in Juárez with his family, returning to Michoacán is not an option because he believes that would put his family in danger.

“I chose to leave there and if I return because I gave up, that would be backtracking,” Antonio said. “I have a wife and a son, and my hope is that maybe they won’t have a life of luxury, but they will have a dignified life.”