EL CEIBO, Guatemala (AP) — Karla Leiva sat on the patio of a migrant shelter near the Guatemala-Mexico border Thursday with her 5-year-old daughter Zoe. They had been in three countries in the past 24 hours, none of them their own.
Watch Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speak on the new policy in the player above.
Leiva, 32, from Yoro in north-central Honduras, had arrived at the shelter in El Ceibo on Wednesday. She and her daughter had started that day 1,000 miles to the north in Brownsville, Texas, where they were put on a plane by the U.S. government with dozens of others mothers and children without knowing where it was going.
The rumor running among the migrants was that they were being sent to California. Eventually, while in the air, they were told the plane would land in Villahermosa, in southern Mexico’s Tabasco state. There, Mexican authorities hustled them onto buses that drove them the three-plus hours to the Guatemalan border.
Leiva and her daughter were swept up in the latest U.S. government effort to deter migrants and asylum-seekers from arriving at its southern border. While still delivering some migrants on flights directly to their Central American nations, the U.S. government has started supplementing with flights to southern Mexican cities like Villahermosa and Tapachula, where Mexican authorities carry them the rest of the way to Guatemala’s border, even if they’re not Guatemalan.
Since last year, the U.S. has not been allowing migrants to solicit asylum at the southern border under a pandemic-related ban.
Leiva said she was not asked by U.S. or Mexican authorities if she feared returning to her country.
At the Mexico-Guatemala border, they were told to walk into Guatemala and look for the shelter. No one registered their entrance into Guatemala. They were not asked for evidence of a negative COVID-19 test required of all foreigners entering Guatemala.
“No one told me anything. They never heard my case and why I went to the United States,” Leiva said. “I couldn’t tell them that they were extorting me and that they threatened to kidnap my little daughter and take my adolescent sons to join the gang. That’s why I left the country.”
Responding to reporters’ questions on Thursday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made his department’s first public acknowledgement that it is expelling Central Americans on the flights to southern Mexico. The Mexican government has been publicly silent.
Mayorkas said the U.S. was coordinating with the Mexican government on flights that include Central Americans and ensuring that they comply with international law to provide humanitarian protection when warranted. He didn’t elaborate.
The flights to the interior of Mexico are part of efforts to discourage returns by migrants apprehended along the Southwest border, Mayorkas said during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley.
“If in fact they are turned around and placed in the northern part of Mexico, it is too facile, too easy for them to return and try an illegal entry again,” he said. “And so in response to that recidivism, to deter and prevent that recidivism from occurring, we are expelling them further into the interior of Mexico, which is far more difficult to try again.”
He said the Biden administration has made changes to border policy, including allowing unaccompanied children into the country, but said people without a legal claim to residency would be removed under the law.
On Wednesday, five United Nations agencies, including the High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed concern over the U.S. policy and repeated their call for the Biden administration to lift the so-called Title 42 restriction on asylum.
Mayorkas said the people being expelled to the interior of Mexico have been expelled under Title 42.
For years, the U.S. government has intermittently flown deported Mexican migrants back to the interior to make it more difficult to try to cross the border again, but this appears to be the first time it has flown Central Americans to Mexico instead of their home countries.
The move comes after President Joe Biden jettisoned many of his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies, describing them as cruel or unwise, including one that made asylum-seekers wait in Mexican border cities for hearings in U.S. immigration court.
Biden also scrapped agreements with Central American nations for asylum-seekers from third countries to be sent there to have their claims heard, denying any prospect of settling in the United States.
The Biden administration has said it wants to focus on addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. Vice President Kamala Harris has led that effort, visiting Mexico and Guatemala to discuss how the U.S. can help while encouraging people not to come. But those are at best medium-term solutions, while at the U.S. border, the number of encounters between U.S. authorities and migrants keeps rising.
Leiva had left Yoro on July 27 with her daughter and three older sons. Twelve days later, she and her daughter crossed the Rio Grande on a raft into Texas with a smuggler and were quickly apprehended. She said her sons were supposed to have followed, but didn’t manage to cross.
U.S. authorities took Leiva and Zoe to Brownsville. Two days later they were put on the plane. On Thursday, they both still wore the identifying wrist bands U.S. authorities gave them.
The orange-painted hilltop shelter here has been filling this week as more migrants are dropped at the border daily. There’s little else in this remote border outpost surrounded by jungle.
Leiva was still trying to understand what had happened and what would come next. She said she could not return to Honduras and she fretted over the $3,000 she had paid the smuggler.
“No one signed any deportation. I didn’t sign,” she said. “They tricked us. They didn’t even give me a paper.” The bracelets are the only evidence they were ever briefly in the U.S.
Leiva’s only choice, she said, was to try making her way north again. Her two sons and older daughter were waiting in northern Mexico.
AP writer Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.