Mexico detained more than 250,000 migrants in 2021

Mexican authorities detained 252,256 migrants from January to November of 2021, breaking the country's yearly record for migrant detentions.

The statistics, released this month by Mexico's interior secretary, show a 206 percent increase in migrant detentions from the 82,379 migrants detained in 2020.

The detention numbers from 2020 are an outlier, as the coronavirus pandemic slowed regional migration.

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Still, the 2021 report, pending figures from December, shows the largest number of migrant detentions since 2001, the first year when Mexican migration statistics became available.

Detentions of migrants in Mexico were on the rise in the years preceding the pandemic, with 182,940 detentions in 2019, 131,445 in 2018 and 93,846 in 2017.

The numbers correlate closely on a month-to-month basis with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics of detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2017, although U.S. statistics include Mexican migrants in addition to those from other countries.

Mexico's quarter-million migrant detentions pale in comparison to the U.S. border detention figures — in calendar year 2021 through November, CBP reported more than 1.8 million migrant encounters.

Not counting Mexican nationals, the U.S. has reported about 1.2 million migrant encounters in that time period.

Mexico's detention numbers reflect only a portion of the region's movement of people, as tens of thousands make it to the United States, stay in Mexico or are returned to their home countries every year.

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Returns of migrants from Mexico to their home countries — whether voluntary or not — have ebbed and flowed with Mexico's migration policies.

So far, Mexico has returned about 40 percent of the foreign nationals it has detained in 2021 —  101,571 people. 

This is a lower percentage than in recent years. In 2020, Mexico returned 73 percent of detained foreign nationals. It returned 82 percent in 2019 and 88 percent in both 2018 and 2017.

The lower rates of return reflect both the country's overwhelmed immigration enforcement system and the rise of Mexico as a migration destination.

From January to November of 2021, Mexico granted 42,855 humanitarian visas, more than half of which went to Haitian, Honduran, and Venezuelan nationals.

Over the past five years, a majority of migrants detained in Mexico have come from the so-called Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — with notable increases in Haitian, Venezuelan, Cuban and Ecuadorian migration in 2021.

Detentions of migrants from Brazil and Chile also increased substantially in 2021, but a large majority of those were likely descendants of Haitian refugees who over the past decade have settled in those countries, and have recently faced pressure to once again relocate.

The spike in migrant detentions in Mexico also reflects increased enforcement of the country's immigration laws, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has cut migration management deals with the Biden and Trump administrations.

Under both U.S. administrations, López Obrador has directed Mexico's National Guard — a force López Obrador created to fight organized crime — to take the lead on immigration enforcement.

Mexico's enforcement priorities have often coincided with the issue's prevalence in U.S politics.

For instance, Mexico in September repatriated 499 Haitians — about half of all Haitians repatriated in 2021 — as the crisis in Del Rio, Texas unfolded, with nearly 15,000 Haitians crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico has otherwise avoided formally detaining or repatriating Haitians, as that country's political and humanitarian situation remains unstable.