MEXICO CITY (AP) — The border city of Nuevo Laredo is to begin receiving migrants returned from the United States as early as this week to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims wind their way through U.S. courts, Mexican officials said Monday.
Mexico and Washington agreed to expand the program often referred to as "remain in Mexico," during earlier talks that headed off threatened U.S. tariffs on Mexican goods.
The expansion is expected to take place at three points along the border, and Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas confirmed that his city across from Laredo, Texas, is one of them. Located in the crime-plagued state of Tamaulipas, it could receive up to 150-200 asylum seekers daily beginning Friday.
Previous rollouts of the program at two points along the California-Mexico border and at Ciudad Juarez-El Paso on the Texas border began in much smaller numbers than that and gradually increased. Nuevo Laredo officials said Mexico's government has not yet said how many their city will be receiving.
"It is a humanitarian issue that we will be attending to within the measure of our capacities," Rivas said. "The federal government must take responsibility for being the ones who took this decision (to accept the program's expansion). We will continue knocking on doors to find resources. The municipal government is overwhelmed."
Observers have expressed concern about the possible implementation of the program in Tamaulipas, where drug cartels control swaths of territory and have been known to prey on vulnerable migrants.
The State Department bars U.S. government employees from most travel in Tamaulipas and warns American citizens against all travel to the state due to kidnapping and other crimes. It is one of just five of Mexico's 31 states currently under a level-four travel warning, the State Department's most severe.
"Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common," the department's travel warning reads. "Gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments. Federal and state security forces have limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state."
Rivas and Deputy Mayor Raúl Cárdenas Thomae said Nuevo Laredo's shelters are already overflowing with some 3,000 migrants. The city is studying the possibility of opening another one to accommodate the returnees, they said.
Thomae said Nuevo Laredo would be receiving those returned across a stretch of border from Roma, Texas, to Ciudad Acuna, in the state of Coahuila. That is about 260 miles (420 kilometers).
There have been more than 14,000 returns by migrants to Mexico under the program since it launched in January, according to the most recent figures available from the Mexican government.
The U.S. policy targets a surge of mostly Central American migrants, many of them traveling in family groups, arriving at the U.S. border. The Trump administration hopes migrants will be less likely to make the journey if they know they have to stay in Mexico for a wait that could take months or even years due to a large and growing backlog in immigration courts.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not given specifics on the planned expansion of the policy.
Mexico is also using thousands of troops and police to support immigration enforcement as agreed in the deal with Washington.
Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said Monday in the Caribbean city of Cancun that in addition to 6,500 National Guard agents in Mexico's southern border region, there are about 15,000 for the northern region, La Jornada newspaper reported.