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News / Nation & World

Mexico tightens travel rules on Peruvians in a show of visa diplomacy to slow migration to US

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press
Published: May 8, 2024, 8:04am

BOULEVARD, Calif. (AP) — Julia Paredes believed her move to the United States might be now or never. Mexico was days from requiring visas for Peruvian visitors. If she didn’t act quickly, she would have to make a far more perilous, surreptitious journey over land to settle with her sister in Dallas.

Mexico began requiring visas for Peruvians on Monday in response to a major influx of migrants from the South American country, after identical moves for Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians. It effectively eliminated the option of flying to a Mexican city near the U.S. border, as Paredes, 45, did just before it was too late.

“I had to treat it as a emergency,” said Paredes, who worked serving lunch to miners in Arequipa, Peru, and borrowed money to fly to Mexico’s Tijuana, across from San Diego. Last month smugglers guided her through a remote opening in the border wall to a dirt lot in California, where she and about 100 migrants from around the world shivered over campfires after a morning drizzle and waited for overwhelmed Border Patrol agents to drive them to a station for processing.

Senior U.S. officials, speaking to reporters ahead of a meeting of top diplomats from about 20 countries in the Western hemisphere this week in Guatemala, applauded Mexico’s crackdown on air travel from Peru and called visa requirements an important tool to jointly confront illegal migration.

For critics, shutting down air travel only encourages more dangerous choices. Illegal migration by Venezuelans plummeted after Mexico imposed visa requirements in January 2022, but the lull was short-lived. Last year Venezuelans made up nearly two-thirds of the record-high 520,000 migrants who walked through the Darien Gap, the notorious jungle spanning parts of Panama and Colombia.

More than 25,000 Chinese traversed the Darien last year. They generally fly to Ecuador, a country known for few travel restrictions, and cross the U.S. border illegally in San Diego to seek asylum. With an immigration court backlog topping 3 million cases, it takes years to decide such claims, during which time people can obtain work permits and establish roots.

“People are going to come no matter what,” said Miguel Yaranga, 22, who flew from Lima, Peru’s capital, to Tijuana and was released by the Border Patrol Sunday at a San Diego bus stop. He had orders to appear in immigration court in New York in February 2025, which puzzled him because he said he told agents he would settle with his sister on the other side of the country, in Bakersfield, California.

Jeremy MacGillivray, deputy chief of the Mexico mission of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, predicts that Peruvian migration will drop “at least at the beginning” and bounce back as people shift to walking through the Darien Gap and to Central America and Mexico.

Mexico said last month that it would require visas for Peruvians for the first time since 2012 in response to a “substantial increase” in illegal migration. Large-scale Peruvian migration to Mexico began in 2022; Peruvians were stopped in the country an average of 2,160 times a month from January to March of this year, up from a monthly average of 544 times for all of 2023.

Peruvians also began showing up at the U.S. border in 2022. The U.S. Border Patrol arrested Peruvians an average of about 5,300 times a month last year before falling to a monthly average of 3,400 from January through March, amid a broad immigration crackdown by Mexico.

Peru immediately reciprocated Mexico’s visa requirement but changed course after a backlash from the country’s tourism industry. Peru noted in its reversal that it is part of a regional economic bloc that includes Mexico, Chile and Colombia.

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Peru’s membership with Mexico in the Pacific Alliance allowed its citizens visa-free travel longer than other countries.

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It is unclear if Colombia, also a major source of migration, will be next, but Isacson said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is in a “lovefest” with his Colombian counterpart, Gustavo Petro, while his relations with Peru’s government are more strained.

Colombians are consistently near the top nationalities of migrants arriving at Tijuana’s airport. Many find hotels before a guide takes them to boulder-strewn mountains east of the city, where they cross through openings in the border wall and then walk toward dirt lots that the Border Patrol has identified as waiting stations.

Bryan Ramírez, 25, of Colombia, reached U.S. soil with his girlfriend last month, only two days after leaving Bogota for Cancun, Mexico, and continuing on another flight to Tijuana. He waited alongside others overnight for Border Patrol agents to pick him up as cold rain and high winds whipped over the crackle of high-voltage power lines.

The group waiting near Boulevard, a small, loosely defined rural town, included several Peruvians who said they came for economic opportunity and to escape violence and political crises.

Peruvians can still avoid the Darien jungle by flying to El Salvador, which introduced visa-free travel for them in December in reciprocation for a similar move by Peru’s government. But they would still have to travel over land through Mexico, where many are robbed or kidnapped.

Ecuadoreans, who have needed visas to enter Mexico since September 2021, can also fly to El Salvador, but not all do. Oscar Palacios, 42, said he walked through Darien because he couldn’t afford to fly.

Palacios, who left his wife and year-old child in Ecuador with plans to support them financially from the U.S., said it took him two weeks to travel from his home near the violent city of Esmeralda to Mexico’s border with Guatemala. It then took him two months to cross Mexico because immigration authorities turned him around three times and bused him back to the southern part of the country. He said he was robbed repeatedly.

Palacios finally reached Tijuana and, after three nights in a hotel, crossed into the U.S. A Border Patrol agent spotted him with migrants from Turkey and Brazil and drove them to the dirt lot to wait for a van or bus to take them to a station for processing. Looking back on the journey, Palacios said he would rather cross Darien Gap 100 times than Mexico even once.

Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed.

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