By Brendan O'Boyle
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Asylum claims by Haitians in Mexico are on track to hit a record above 50,000 this year, a top official said, further pressuring the country's already strained migrant services as many begin to contemplate a future there rather than in the United States.
In the year's first three months, 13,631 applied for refugee status, dwarfing claims from other countries and compared to 17,153 in all of 2022, according to data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR).
"If the current trend continues, it surely would exceed the level reached in 2021," when a record 52,000 sought asylum, Andres Ramirez, the head of COMAR, told Reuters, adding he was not sure why the numbers had jumped.
Mexico City officials last week moved some 400 Haitians from an informal camp in a city plaza to a new shelter on the capital's outskirts set up in response to the uptick in arrivals.
Part of the explanation for the increase may lie in a toughening of U.S. border controls in January that has made it harder for many migrants to cross by land into the United States, together with a parallel U.S. program allowing a monthly quota of Haitians to cross by air.
Haitians without sponsors or who have irregularly crossed into Mexico or the United States would not qualify for the latter program, leaving many effectively stranded in Mexico.
Further complicating the picture, most Haitians claiming asylum in Mexico do not qualify because they left their homes years ago for economic reasons. They face irregular status if rejected and the risk of deportation.
Authorities say most arrive in Mexico from Chile and Brazil, where they resettled after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake but have been leaving in recent years amid bureaucratic, economic and cultural hurdles.
Kelly Val, 31, spent six years in Chile but left in January with his wife Mikelange Joseph, 30, and nine-month-old Chile-born daughter Cristina.
"I want to stay here a bit, maybe a couple years, to see how it goes," said Val, who would like to work in the United States but has struggled to schedule an appointment to request asylum using a U.S. government app.
Val said the family liked Chile but left because Mikelange could not obtain migration papers after she joined him in 2021.
The family spent a week in the camp in Giordano Bruno plaza before moving to the new shelter in the Tlahuac borough. Here they receive meals and saw a doctor for Cristina, who is fighting an infection caught while crossing the Panamanian jungle on their journey from Chile.
Gabriela Hernandez, director of the Casa Tochan migrant shelter in Mexico City, said seven shelters housing nearly 900 migrants petitioned the city to open the new one.
"They have been arriving at our shelters, but we're full," said Hernandez.
At Tlahuac, Joines Exil, 23, received a 45-day permit to stay in Mexico before traveling to the Mexican border city of Reynosa.
He lived eight years in Chile but left in February because inflation left him with less money to send home to Haiti.
"It seems like every day that passes, things change a lot," Exil said about border policies.
"But when you have a dream you have to continue on."
(This story has been refiled to edit the headline to say "migrants" instead of "refugees" to clarify that not all asylum seekers qualify as refugees)
(Reporting by Brendan O'Boyle; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and John Stonestreet)