TENOSIQUE, Mexico — For years, Mexico’s most closely watched border was its northern one, which generations of Mexican migrants have crossed seeking employment and refuge in the United States.
But the sudden surge of child migrants from Central America, many of them traveling alone, has cast scrutiny south, to the 600-mile border separating Mexico and Guatemala.
Now Mexico finds itself whipsawing between compassion and crackdown as it struggles with a migration crisis of its own. While the public is largely sympathetic to migrants and deeply critical of the United States’ hard-line immigration policies, officials are under pressure from their neighbors to the north and south as they try to cope with the influx. As a result, they are taking measures that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Mexico has quietly stepped up the pace of deportation of migrants, some of them unaccompanied children. It announced plans to stop people from boarding freight trains north and will open five new border control stations along routes favored by migrants.
“Never before has Mexico announced a state policy on the border, and now it has,’’ the interior secretary, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said in an interview. “It is absolute control of the southern border.’’
But at the same time, and the part the Mexican government and President Enrique Peña Nieto emphasized in a speech at the border, Mexico and Guatemala plan a new guest worker program and temporary, three-day transit visa — both free — allowing access to four border states in an effort, the interior minister said, to have an “orderly flow.’’ The program may be extended to Hondurans and Salvadorans in the future, he said, adding that controlling the process would make migration safer and outweigh any concern about attracting more people.
Although thousands of children, families and adults have made it to the United States, often with the help of a smuggler paying off law enforcement officers along the way, Mexican officials estimate that half of those who try do not, instead getting stranded in the country when they run out of money or are detained by immigration agents patrolling buses, checkpoints, hotels and places they transit.
Last year, Mexico deported 89,000 Central Americans, including 9,000 children, the bulk of the returnees coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, officials have said. In the fiscal year that ended last September, the United States sent back 106,420 from those countries.
So far this year, Mexico has detained 53 child migrants a day, mostly Central American, double the pace of the same period last year. It has deported more than 30,000 Central Americans so far this year, including more than 14,000 Hondurans, driven home on packed buses at least three times a week.
Francisco Alba, a migration scholar at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, said the influx creates a conundrum: It is almost impossible to stop the flow, yet the country cannot support a large population of refugees.
“There is not really much the country can do about it,’’ Alba said. “It cannot really stop these flows. Its tradition is to not have these tight controls and to have a relatively accommodating attitude toward migration, to a point.’’
But now Mexico plans to bolster its border security, including a plan to stop waves of people, some of them with babies and toddlers, from stowing away on a northbound freight train known as “The Beast,’’ because of rampant accidents and violent crime. Images of the train and the little done to stop it had appalled U.S. members of Congress and human rights advocates.
In a recent accident, a 2-year-old boy fell from the train and suffered the partial amputation of his leg while traveling with his mother from Honduras to reunite with her American father in Texas. The woman, a 23-year-old aspiring graphic artist, severely injured the arm she uses to draw.
“They will not be able to get on the train,’’ Osorio Chong said, promising details of how they will be stopped in the coming days. “They cannot use this train because their lives are at risk, and they don’t have permission to be in the country.’’
Mexico is deporting migrants at a brisk clip as its shelters fill up with families and children who are broke, exhausted and now daunted by the long, often dangerous trek and spreading word that legal entry to the United States would be nearly impossible.
Advocates worry that migrants may be pushed to take more dangerous routes or pay larger bribes to immigration agents and the police, already a widespread practice here.
“It is just going to make everything even more underground,’’ said Ruben Figueroa, an activist who helps migrants at a shelter here.
Too little, advocates say, is being done for people who flee the violence in their home country but cannot stomach the often treacherous 1,000-mile journey across Mexico toward the United States.
Mexico revised its immigration law in 2010 after a criminal gang massacred 72 Central American migrants. The new law made it a civil offense rather than a crime to be in the country without authorization and established procedures for migrants to get temporary visas so they would not have to travel at the mercy of criminal gangs.
But human rights advocates say that in practice, few qualify for the transit visa, which requires travelers to have enough money for lodging during the trip. Fewer still qualify for a humanitarian visa because, aside from those mutilated on the train, they cannot prove they have been harmed during their transit.
Even without official permission to stay, many migrants find an extensive system of church and nonprofit shelters helping them and making the journey north possible. La 72 shelter sits just down the road from an immigration checkpoint, but officers do not bother the migrants staying there. Indeed, a state police patrol guards the shelter.
On a recent day, several children, most traveling with a family member, scampered about playing tag and board games while adolescents listened to music and watched television.
The families seemed in no rush to continue; several of them stayed put when the nearby freight train moved through, and several said they loathed to take it given the dangers.
Ruth Maribel Flores, 28, carried her 2-month-old baby, Genesis, mostly by car from Honduras after gang members demanded the family home in Tegucigalpa under threat of death, accusing her 9-year-old son of being a lookout for a rival faction.
“Little by little, we hope to get to my sister in Tennessee,’’ Flores said, cradling Genesis and fretting over the child’s developing cold amid a growing number of families and teenagers stalled here. “But for now we are staying here and hoping. We hear Mexico may have a visa, and we will try that, too.’’
Her husband, Carlos González, said the journey had exhausted the family’s meager means.
“We are out of money,’’ he said. “They robbed us in Guatemala — the money exchanger, the migration officer, everybody.’’
Dunia Ruiz traveled with her 14-year-old daughter from Honduras mostly by hitching rides, she said. She decided to leave with her daughter after gang members raped a young cousin and she had heard, incorrectly, that the United States was offering visas to women with children.
Now, she is staying in Tenosique with only a vague plan to head north. She plans to ask Mexico for a visa to stay.
“If I can stay here and work even for a little while, I would do that,’’ she said. “The most important thing was to just get out of Honduras.’’