EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – An economic crisis in Cuba and the influence of organized crime in Mexico were push factors behind the March increase in migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border, experts say.

Border agents last month came across 221,303 migrants, a 34 percent increase over February and raising the total number of encounters this fiscal year above 1 million. More than half of all migrant stops in March (119,529) involved either Mexican or Cuban nationals, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows.

Encounters with Cuban migrants have tripled in the past two months, surpassing the flow of families, single adults and unaccompanied children from Central America. That has to do with the island nation’s economy unable to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and some outside pull factors, said Mariakarla Nodarse Venancio, assistant director for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“The humanitarian crisis in Cuba has been growing more dire by the day. Cuba depends on tourism and there has been no tourism. The economic situation is bad,” she said.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes custody of a Cuban migrant at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Julian Resendiz/The Border Report)

Another major development is that Nicaragua, a long-time ally of the Havana regime, late last year stopped requiring visas from Cubans wishing to leave the island. This drastically cut down the distance Cubans must travel to reach the U.S. border.

“Their trip used to start in Guyana. So, they would cross South and Central America, which is a very dangerous route and very expensive. The chances of crime and extortion were high, and they had to cross the Darien Gap, which can put lives at risk,” Nodarse said. “Nicaragua is a much shorter route. That is one reason you see the increase.”

But there are other factors. The U.S. has stopped repatriation flights of inadmissible Cuban migrants, is limiting remittances meant for residents of the island and is only issuing visas to parents of American citizens.

“U.S. policies toward Cuban haven’t helped. There is no formal way to transfer money, there are limitations on travel and the embassy isn’t fully staffed,” she said.

Graphic courtesy Washington Office on Latin America

Without those lawful avenues and with a political environment of mistrust, censorship and oppression following widespread protests in the island last summer, she said, Cubans are bolting for the U.S. in numbers that could rival the 1980 Mariel boatlift – when some 125,000 arrived on American shores.

“Another thing I’ve noticed is a change in (migration) patterns. It used to be one household member would migrate to be able to help the family back home. But now, it looks like entire families are leaving,” Nodarse said.

Hand of the cartels behind Mexican migration

More than 200,000 Mexican citizens have crossed the Rio Grande, come over the border wall, walked across deserts in West Texas, Southern New Mexico and Arizona or been found inadmissible at ports of entry in the past three months.

Many are coming from Michoacan, Durango, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Guerrero, states where drug violence has reached historic levels in the past three years.

Government officials in Mexico and border agents in the United States say these migrants are either being pushed out by drug violence at home or being lured by the prospect of jobs in America. Either way, the powerful Mexican drug cartels figure in that migration.

“Transnational criminal organizations exploit the migrants’ lack of understanding of our laws and make false promises of a safe and easy journey to the United States,” the U.S. Border Patrol said in an email to Border Report.

Mexican migrants expelled from the United States skip the National Immigration Institute checkpoint on the south side of the Paso del Norte Bridge. (Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

The agency said the Title 42 public health order, which allows its agents to rapidly expel newly arrived migrants, has contributed to multiple encounters with Mexicans. While Mexico may detain and even repatriate Central Americans and others, it cannot legally hinder the free travel of its citizens. Many just turn around and attempt a second, third, fourth or fifth crossing after being expelled from the United States.

“Title 42 expulsions are another contributing factor, as some (Mexican nationals) are encountered more than once after being expelled back to Mexico,” the Border Patrol said. “Mexican nationals have been and continue to be the primary citizen group encountered in the region.”

The Biden administration is ending Title 42 on May 23.