What migrants face at Mexico’s southern border and how it could get worse—a report from Tapachula

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Date: Jun 12, 2019

Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

**This blog was originally published on Medium**

“A través de los sueños también viaja la muerte contigo” (Through your dreams, death also travels with you). A young Nicaraguan man I met at a migrant shelter on the outskirts of Tapachula shared what it meant for migrants to cross into this part of Mexico’s southern border these days.

Representing the Latin American Working Group, I recently joined a group of over forty non-governmental organizations, journalists and members of academia on a mission (“Misión de Observación de la Crisis Humanitaria de Personas Migrantes y Refugiados en el Sureste Mexicano) to observe the humanitarian crisis at Mexico’s southern border. During the mission which was coordinated by local organizations that have been on the frontlines of protecting migrant rights, we spoke with local and federal government officials, representatives of international organizations, migrant shelters, and migrants themselves.

This was before the U.S.-Mexico tariff deal was reached. But what we saw and heard was a small window into what migrants and asylum seekers would face at Mexico’s southern border once the Mexican government starts deploying more National Guard troops there, militarizing its border with Guatemala and caving to U.S. pressure under the new agreement.

As soon as we arrived at the airport and headed towards Tapachula, one of our hosts pointed out an underpass where Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) and municipal police had been stationed regularly, stopping all of the vans, or “combis,” coming in from the border and apprehending any migrants on them. Local organizations shared with us that there had been an increase in checkpoints since March of this year between Tapachula and Ciudad Hidalgo, the closest town to the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Even if migrants do make it to Tapachula without being detained on the roads leading to the city, they still face the threat of apprehension in Tapachula. In the just four days that we were there, there were almost daily immigration raids carried out in local hotels and other public areas by INM, accompanied by soldiers from Mexico’s new National Guard. We heard of migrants who were apprehended and deported even when they carried official paperwork noting that they had begun the process to request refugee status in Mexico, which is illegal.

When we asked what exactly the role of the new National Guard was, the answers we received were as vague as the official statement published by the Mexican government shortly before our visit –that they are stationed temporarily outside of the Siglo XXI detention center and only accompany INM agents in an observatory capacity but don’t arrest migrants themselves. A few of my colleagues on the mission had the opportunity to speak with some of the soldiers who were stationed at checkpoints on the highways outwards from Tapachula. They themselves expressed confusion about their roles and what they were even doing there to begin with. This is extremely concerning because their presence will now rapidly be scaled up.

By and large this will mean that National Guard troops will be present at additional points along the highways and roads from the Mexico-Guatemala border and maybe even outside other institutions and public spaces. During our trip, we were told that there were only about fifteen troops stationed outside the Siglo XXI detention center. Their additional presence next to INM agents will inevitably influence the actions of migration agents to some degree, giving them legitimacy from a security force. The lack of clarity around their responsibilities could create concerning gray zones, opening space to violate migrants’ rights.

Speaking with migrants a sense of confusion also abounded. Most seemed exhausted, not just from the extreme heat that is so common in southern Mexico, but from having to navigate the government’s changing policies and waiting for weeks and months at a time without knowing if they were even completing the right paperwork. The head of a local migrant shelter, overwhelmed with more migrant families and children than they had ever seen before, shared with us that one of the biggest challenges they faced currently to help migrants passing through was a lack of information on the Mexican government’s migration policies. “We don’t know how to help them because we don’t have the information ourselves,” she told us.

A young man from Honduras I spoke with outside of the local INM office shared that he was unclear on what the exact process to receive temporary visitors’ and humanitarian visas was. “My friend’s request for the visitor’s visa was denied, and they don’t know why. We’re supposed to receive notification by email, but I haven’t heard anything yet,” he said. How recently arrived migrants were supposed to be able to check their emails to receive word on their paperwork was beyond me. He had already spent a month in the Siglo XXI detention center, which when we were there was well beyond its 960-person capacity. “Is your group going in there?” he asked. “The conditions are really bad.” His friend, a single mother with a young son, also from Honduras, told me she had already been waiting for four months, like the majority of the people she knew. She and her son had slept in a park in the center of Tapachula for the first few weeks until they got support from the UN Refugee Agency and were able to find housing. Both hesitantly said they seemed interested in staying in Mexico.


Migrants waiting outside of the local INM office in Tapachula. The office is at the end of a dead-end street, next to the municipal police station. Photo taken by Daniella Burgi-Palomino. May 30, 2019


Chances to access asylum remain minimal, if not close to impossible, without waiting for months in Tapachula. People sleep overnight outside of the local office of Mexico’s National Agency for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) because they have nowhere else to go or because they’re scared to lose their place in line. And the bureaucracy seems unnecessarily complicated –waiting in line for up to three days to just get a first appointment to be seen. This office had already received an estimated 14,000 applications since the beginning of the year, which came close to what it had received in all of 2018 and makes up the bulk of the total applications Mexico has received so far. Most staff works twelve hour days, and they don’t see how they’d function with even less staff or budget, which the López Obrador Administration has proposed cutting. It’s also a very small office –physically they cannot take in or interview more people at a time. The Honduran woman I had met earlier in the day had told me she had heard of a lot of people getting their applications denied. It’s no surprise that many migrants give up. And it’s very hard to imagine how Mexico will have the capacity to receive and integrate more asylum seekers with the current state of its refugee agency.


Lines of migrants waiting outside of the Tapachula COMAR office. Photo taken by Daniella Burgi-Palomino. May 30, 2019


We consistently heard that local government institutions were overwhelmed in trying to figure out how to respond to the humanitarian crisis at Mexico’s southern border. The makeshift fairgrounds, the “Feria Mesoamericana” that had been set up in Tapachula to receive the large migrant caravans last year still stands, and was full when we were there, mostly with extra-continental migrants. It still seemed like a refugee camp, but one that had been hastily set up. Shoddy infrastructure. Poor conditions.

Checkpoints. Capture. Collapsed institutions. Confusion. This is what migrants currently face at Mexico’s southern border. There doesn’t seem to be a longer-term plan or effort to dialogue with civil society organizations to develop one. The only plan seems to be the one that the Mexican government conceded to in negotiations with the United States.

Unfortunately, it will likely only get worse with the proposed actions under the new agreement. In fact, it already has. Mexico detained and deported over 400 migrants in a single group outside of Tapachula just last week with a huge show of force made up of INM agents, Mexican federal police and the military. This is not the kind of humanitarian response to migration that the AMLO Administration had promised when it took office. It’s deeply concerning that it has agreed to do the bidding of the United States in stopping refugees from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

The migrants that I met and spoke with last week–children, women, men, and entire families, fleeing persecution from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua –are once again the bargaining chips in the U.S.-Mexico deal. They will continue seeking protection however they can find it. But theproposed actions by both governments under the agreement will only worsen the current humanitarian crisis. Ultimately, neither the United States nor Mexico will gain anything from the deal unless the reasons for which migrants are fleeing their homes are addressed in the longer-term.