A group of tired Colombians and Venezuelans carrying backpacks approached a checkpoint on a Mexican road heading north to the US, then suddenly diverted left to avoid it.

“They can send us back and make us walk all over again,” said Víctor, a 33-year-old Colombian carrying his infant son on his shoulders.

National Guard officers at the outpost remained in their posts, seeming to ignore the manoeuvre, though migrants say the Mexican authorities are unpredictable. Sometimes agents force them south, to start all over again. Other times they ask for bribes. Sometimes they offer bus rides to cities further north.

As the US gears up for November’s presidential election, immigration is unavoidable. Voters cite it as one of their most pressing concerns and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has made the “invasion” at the country’s southern border core to his campaign. In turn, President Joe Biden has leaned heavily on Mexico to step up efforts to curb the record numbers of people crossing the 2,000-mile-long border with the US.

Over the past decade, Mexico has tightened visa rules, deployed the military and set up checkpoints. In January and February, it detained a record number migrants from more than 100 different countries. Some American commentators have referred to Mexico as a “wall” against migrants and assert that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador extorts Biden by opening and closing the flow of migrants at will.

But while Mexico’s efforts make migrants’ journey north riskier, costlier and slower, uneven enforcement and widespread corruption are disrupting efforts to staunch the steady flow of groups crossing Mexico in their quest to reach the US.

A Texas National Guard soldier pointing migrants towards a US Border Patrol checkpoint
A Texas National Guard soldier directs migrants towards a US Border Patrol checkpoint after they crossed the US-Mexico border in September 2023 © John Moore/Getty Images

Most detained migrants are swiftly freed because of legal protections, and a lack of resources for the sheer numbers crossing mean many eventually make it across the border.

“They are stuck with this sort of kabuki pantomime of trying to put on a show of blocking people, which they’re kind of good at,” said Adam Isacson, a migration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organisation. Mexico can push down US border arrivals for just a few months at a time, he added, but “corruption and organised crime” limit its effectiveness.

Mexico detains more migrants now than ever, but most are then given an administrative order to leave the country and released, government statistics show. Of a record near 120,000 migrant detentions in Mexico in January just 3,000 were moved to another country.

The dysfunction is more than a diplomatic challenge for Biden: it threatens his re-election bid this year. After being pummelled for months by Trump over his handling of the southern border, and even receiving criticism from some Democrats, the president has tacked to the right on immigration and is now considering executive action to crack down on migrant arrivals.

Biden backed a bipartisan border deal reached in the Senate earlier this year. But after Trump opposed it many Republicans did too, rendering it politically unviable.

A US National Guard soldier standing guard at the border with Mexico
A US National Guard soldier standing guard at the border with Mexico at Eagle Pass, Texas © Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

While Congress bickers, the people travelling north through Mexico are buffeted by the country’s capricious authorities.

On a recent morning on the Mexican side of its porous southern border with Guatemala, agents of the National Migration Institute (INM), a government unit, called out a list of mostly Venezuelan migrants to bus them to a city a few hundred kilometres north.

“They play with people’s hopes,” said Mauro Pérez, president of the INM’s Citizen’s Council, an oversight body, and legal director at Pastoral de Movilidad Humana. “What the institute does is let them in and afterwards, along the road, detain them and ask for money.”

“It’s discretional and lends itself to a lot of corruption.”

Human rights groups say the checkpoints focus on inspecting vehicles, forcing migrants to walk for hours often with limited food and water, and get on and off transport multiple times, elevating the cost. The government has contracted coaches to move migrants — but sometimes people are ferried further north; usually back down south.

Gretchen Kuhner, director at the civil society group Imumi, said: “The policy has basically been to wear people down, so send them from the north to the south and dump them in the south so they have to make their way back up.”

Guatemalan migrants are also subject to rapid removal not published in the official statistics, two people with knowledge of the practice said.

Migrant families sitting in a makeshift camp
Migrant families stay in a makeshift camp on the northern border of Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez © Luis Torres/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The threat of detention pushes migrants into the arms of organised crime and along riskier routes to avoid detection. Several migrants said they had to pay bribes at checkpoints across Mexico. An Ecuadoran couple with a one-year-old child said they spent about $8,000 on smugglers, transport, bribes and ransoms as they crossed Mexico.

INM has been repeatedly accused of corruption and malpractice, including over a fire at a detention centre last year that killed 40 migrants who were left to die in their cells. The INM and National Guard did not respond to requests for comment. Mexico’s foreign ministry said focusing just on containment was dysfunctional given the complex flows of migration from the region. It advocates for more legal pathways for workers and attention to causes of the problem. “No country — no matter how powerful — can manage a phenomenon that is inherently transnational and multidimensional.”

The Biden administration last year introduced a system letting migrants use an app, called CBP One, to make an appointment to cross legally and ask for asylum — an attempt to regulate the process and cut out smugglers. In the first three months of 2024, fewer migrants were found crossing irregularly than before, as more people crossed through ports of entry via the app.

On a recent flight from Mexico City to Reynosa, which borders Texas, about 35 people on a 186-seater plane were separated on arrival because they had CBP One appointments.

People looking at coffins of those who died in a fire at an immigration detention centre
People mourn the deaths of migrants who were killed in a fire at an immigration detention centre in Ciudad Juarez last year © Moises Castillo/AP

Court rulings in the US and Mexico have also put limits on authorities. Mexico cannot hold children in detention, for example, and last year its Supreme Court ruled migrants can only be detained for 36 hours — often not long enough to arrange consular agreement for transfers to another country.

Migrants also now come from more countries than ever, further complicating removals. In the fiscal year 2023, more than half of the irregular arrivals at the US’s southern border were from countries outside Mexico and northern Central America for the first time, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Biden’s Republican opponents say he is too soft on the border — and on Mexico’s failure to tackle the problem. Trump — who launched his 2016 presidential campaign by referring to Mexicans as criminals and rapists — promises to force asylum seekers to wait out their cases south of the border.

“Mexico will do as much or as little as required of them,” said Carlos Trujillo, who was Trump’s ambassador to the Organization of American States. “Quiet diplomacy, ‘we’re going to change Mexican hearts and minds without any real muscle or teeth behind it’ — it hasn’t worked.”

The Biden administration says it wants to encourage investment in countries of origin, expand legal migration options and improve regional enforcement. The US National Security Council said the US had a collaborative partnership with Mexico and that joint efforts had contributed to lower numbers of irregular migrants in the first three months of 2024.

The NSC said: “As neighbours and enduring partners, we remain committed to humanely reducing the unprecedented irregular migration flows.”

Mexico and other countries in the region will probably face White House pressure to do more, whoever wins in November. Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch, said US policies revolved around the idea of making migration as painful as possible, but ultimately were not that effective.

“People who are fleeing for their lives, who are fleeing violence and extortion, and gangs and failed states are very determined,” he said. “It’s a broken system with broken incentives.”

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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