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South of Del Rio: The Shelters Welcoming Haitians in Mexico City

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Date: Nov 03, 2021

Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Cher migrant pour le moment, nous n’avons pas assez d’espacé à Tochan” the sign reads in French on the door of the Casa Tochan, one of the few migrant shelters in Mexico City, informing migrants that for the moment, they don’t have space. The overwhelmed shelter staff would like not to put up that sign, but for the moment they have had no other choice because of the large groups of Haitians that they have been receiving in the last two months at the small shelter in the Alvaro Obregon neighborhood of Mexico City. The door stands in between a colorful mural depicting the journey many have taken to arrive at the shelter with train tracks and footsteps on one side and people on the other holding the sign “No one is illegal.”

A mural painted on the exterior of Casa Tochan. Photo by: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Casa Tochan like the other two migrant shelters that exist in Mexico City, has been well over capacity in recent weeks. Tochan is a shelter just for male migrants with only 30 beds. When I was there in mid-October the shelter had 40 migrants staying, over half Haitian, and the rest a mix of Central American and other migrants. At one point at the end of September they fit 76 migrants –on their floors, kitchen, closets, anywhere they could fit a mattress. Hermana Magda, the director of CAFEMIN (Casa de Acogida Formación y Empoderamiento de la Mujer Migrante y Refugiada), another shelter in Mexico City, told me that they were housing around 200 people, even though they have capacity to fit 50 people comfortably. CAFEMIN had such a large Haitian population that they had set up two kitchens so that each group of migrants could cook food to their liking and feel more at home in Mexico. These are two of the (at most) three shelters in Mexico City that are doing extraordinary work with very limited resources to welcome Haitian, Central American, and other migrants amidst multiple challenges.

Gabriela Hernandez (Gaby), the director of Casa Tochan and a volunteer told me how most Haitians at the shelter have made the long and dangerous journey to Mexico City from Brazil and Chile. The migrants have all told shelter staff of the lack of opportunities they had to integrate and live with dignity in South America. The vast majority do not speak of the United States as their destination. All have pending applications with Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) in Mexico City and are willing to wait it out to hear if they will be granted asylum or not. The same is true of the Haitian families in CAFEMIN. Some Haitians in Tochan and CAFEMIN try to find work in Mexico City any way they can, even before receiving their identification document in their asylum proceedings, making them vulnerable to exploitation in the informal sector. As is the situation across most of Mexico, Haitians face racism and targeting by Mexican police. A Haitian man from the CAFEMIN shelter had just been arrested while outside of the shelter by the police and handed over to Mexican migration enforcement (INM).

 Mural inside Casa Tochan with flags representing migrants’ home countries
Photo by: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Gaby tells me the story of a young Haitian man who left behind his wife and daughter in Tapachula at Mexico’s southern border because he feared the journey through the state of Chiapas to Mexico City would be too dangerous. It’s not a surprise he felt that way, given the recent militarized responses by Mexican migration enforcement and National Guard to large groups of migrants in the south. He came alone first to see whether their chances to live as a family and obtain asylum would be better in Mexico City. Still, “están como en una cárcel,” (they are like in jail) and can’t move, Gaby says, because according to Mexican migration law, asylum seekers are not allowed to move from the Mexican state where they initiate their asylum application until their case is resolved.

But neither Tochan nor CAFEMIN are meant for longer-term stays, a challenge given that the time to hear back from COMAR on an asylum application will likely exceed three months. Workers were building a new dormitory with a few beds in Tochan to prepare to receive more migrants. There is a new migrant caravan that left Tapachula two weeks ago with Mexico City as its stated goal, which would only further overwhelm these small shelters. Thankfully, CAFEMIN and Tochan have received help from Mexico City’s public health ministry for COVID-19 tests and vaccines—all migrants in both shelters had received at least a first vaccine shot and there were informative signs about coronavirus all over Casa Tochan. Hermana Magda and Gaby told me that the same is not true of other shelters across Mexico that have struggled during the pandemic.

Posters informing migrants of COVID-19
Photo by: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Beyond support for preventative health measures, the city government has not provided them with much. “They don’t want to offer anything because they say migrants will just leave,” Gaby explains. Tochan and CAFEMIN struggle to make ends meet for food. They are understaffed and their staff and volunteers face language barriers, though they try to find Creole-speaking volunteers to help interpret from wherever they can. Some of the Haitian migrants speak some Spanish or Portuguese because of the time they spent living in Brazil and Chile and help translate for other Haitians. I asked both what they needed most. Gaby responded, “Un equipo más grande y fuerte. Comida,” (A larger and stronger team. Food.) Hermana Magda responded simply “diapers.” CAFEMIN had 76 babies among the over 200 migrants they were housing.

It is too early to tell if any of the Haitians, or other migrants who had already been waiting a few weeks at Tochan and CAFEMIN in Mexico City will ultimately be granted asylum. The Mexico City COMAR office has not received many of the country’s asylum applications, compared to the Tapachula office in the south, which has received over 70 percent of all the applications this year, but there are still enormous backlogs within the agency across the country. Through the end of October 2021, COMAR received a new record of over 100,000 asylum applications, higher than the total applications received for 2019. For the first time ever, the highest number of applications came from Haitians, followed closely by Hondurans. Asylum applications from Chile, children of the Haitian asylum seekers, were the fifth highest for October 2021 following applications from Cuba and El Salvador, and surpassing those even from Guatemala. But Haitians still have one of the lowest recognition rates compared to other nationalities. Many Haitians seek asylum in Mexico because it is one of the only options available to them to regularize their status in Mexico.

 New dormitory being built in Casa Tochan
Photo by: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

The reality is that not all the migrants crossing into Mexico–whether Haitian or Central American—have the United States in mind as their final destination. Many do, especially people with family networks in the United States, but not all. But waiting in Mexico means prolonged wait times for asylum applications to be resolved without much support and access to basic services. This difficult situation is further exacerbated by systemic racism for black migrants, extortion from organized crime, and the possibility of detention and deportation from Mexican migration, security forces, and law enforcement. The Mexican government’s apprehensions of migrants are at an all time high since 2019 and deportations to Haiti from Mexico have also continued since early October. It is no surprise that many give up given these enormous obstacles. And this is after an already traumatic and violent journey that migrants take, often crossing through multiple countries.

As we look beyond the horrific images at Del Rio, Texas of our Haitian brothers and sisters being abused by U.S. border officials and search for solutions, we must call on the U.S. government to rescind the Title 42 border policy that closes the border to asylum seekers and continues to fuel expulsions to Haiti, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. There never was a public health justification for a policy created by Stephen Miller and that has now been extended indefinitely by the Biden Administration. The Biden Administration must stop this unnecessary suffering, live up to its promises and take immediate steps to restore asylum at the border and build a system that welcomes people with dignity.

And we must call on the governments in the region, including the Mexican government, to provide migrants and refugees with humanitarian solutions, including access to asylum protection and other alternatives so that people can integrate and live with dignity if they choose to do so in Mexico. We also need an expansion of possibilities for migrants and refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean to seek safety without having to make the dangerous journey to the United States. In the meantime, we should support the organizations not only at the U.S.-Mexico border but also those like Casa Tochan and CAFEMIN, that are on the frontlines of welcoming the women, men, children, and families in Mexico and making them feel at home after long journeys filled with violence, suffering and racism. We hope we can soon move towards welcoming people at our border who have risked it all to find safety for themselves and their families and who could make our communities stronger.

(Check out CAFEMIN and Casa Tochan and donate here via Global Exchange to support their work and support Haitian-led organizations at the U.S.-Mexico border)