The journey to the U.S./Mexico border has intensified in recent months as the Mexican government has cracked down on unauthorized passage through the country, making the journey even more arduous for people from Central America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Much of this is in response to pressure imposed by the Trump administration, though it continues a legacy begun by the Obama administration in 2014. Detention, deportation, and surveillance of human rights-defenders are becoming more common, and migrants are forced into increasingly dangerous routes that imperil their well-being.
Over the past several months, the majority of people served at the comedor come from Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. In October 2019, 26 of the 878 people (about 1.5%) served at the comedor were from four Central American countries—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. By contrast, in April of 2019, 138 people served out of a total 781 (or 18%) were from these same four countries. In October, CBP touted the downturn in numbers of migrants arriving at its southwestern border, and though the reasons for this are multifaceted, one contributing factor is likely increased enforcement against unauthorized migrants in Mexico. Particularly since the late spring, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of people who are detained in and deported from Mexico at the same time that fewer migrants are granted travel visas for passage through the country. The Mexican government has also enhanced more stringent enforcement at the Guatemala/Mexico border and at highway checkpoints, and has deployed thousands of National Guard troops to these places. Finally, the numbers of asylum applications are growing in Mexico. Taken together, these factors have changed the landscape of both the comedor and the U.S./Mexico border more broadly.
U.S. THREATS AND MEXICO’S RESPONSE
When Mexican president Andres Manuel López Obrador took office in December of 2018, he vowed to adopt a humanitarian approach to unauthorized migration in Mexico, said he refused to do the U.S.’s “dirty work” in resolving migration from Central America, and promised assistance to Central American countries. Not long after, however, his commitment began to waver: he did not enhance the budget or staffing of the country’s strapped refugee agency, and he then agreed to receive asylum-seekers sent back to northern border cities through the Trump administration’s “Migration Protection Protocols.” This has now expanded to six cities in northern Mexico, and over 55,000 people await their court dates in precarious situations as a result of this program. In many cases, local humanitarian groups are providing essential services such as shelter and food.
In April, President Trump threatened to close the U.S./Mexico border unless Mexico did more to curb unauthorized migration, and in June, he threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods in a further attempt to diminish the numbers of migrants arriving to the border. López Obrador’s change in direction became especially pronounced due to this pressure from Trump.
It is estimated that the total numbers of migrants who have been deported from Mexico as of October of this year is approximately 130,000, the majority of whom are from Central America. This represents a 30% increase from 2018. In addition to deporting a higher number of immigrants, Mexico is also increasing its practice of detaining people in the country without authorization and limiting their access to visas. The latter practice has created a bottleneck along much of the southern border, as migrants and asylum-seekers wait indefinitely in cities such as Tapachula for information about and approval of visas and paperwork that ensure their legal presence in Mexico.
One effect that amplified enforcement has is the use of alternative routes to avoid detection at the border with Guatemala and along highways with checkpoints. Fewer people, for instance, are crossing the Suchiate River on the Guatemala/Mexico border because of the presence of agents on the northern side of the river, which also affects local commerce. Similarly to what happened in the U.S. when the border became more fortified in the 1990s, migrants are taking riskier routes, such as through isolated mountain ranges and by boat through the ocean. Daniel, a 26-year-old man from Honduras who is currently at the comedor, came to the border alone to seek asylum last year following threats from criminal gangs. After he was denied asylum and sent back to Honduras, the death threats intensified. He was once again forced to flee, this time with his pregnant wife and their three children, ages 1 to 5. This time, Mexico had become so difficult to cross the entire family had to walk for days and hop trains–a difficult and dangerous undertaking, particularly with small children. As staff at the Fray Matias Human Rights Center in Tapachula said, “The southern border has become the wall that Donald Trump wanted.”
This increase in militarization to impede unauthorized migration in Mexico predates Trump, though his threats, and López Obrador’s acquiescence, have exacerbated it. In 2014, Mexico implemented the Southern Border Plan that implemented a naval presence on its rivers, increased surveillance at commonly used border crossings, implemented a drone program, created highway checkpoints, more closely monitored train routes and bus stations, and improved coordination with Mexican police and customs agencies. This was an Obama and Peña Nieto-era plan in an effort to reduce migration to the U.S. in the wake of the high numbers of unaccompanied children who arrived to the border during the summer of 2014. The implications and practice of enforcement that occurs both west to east–along the U.S./Mexico border—and vertically –from the U.S. south to Guatemala–is not solely a Trump or López Obrador development.
DETENTION AND DEPORTATION
The enforcement in Mexico has dramatically driven up the numbers of people in immigration detention, which are often at least at double or triple the capacity that they were built for. From April through June of 2019—the time period that reflects Trump’s threat to first close the border and then impose tariffs if the numbers of people reaching the U.S. did not decrease—there were 73,400 people, including children, detained in Mexican immigration centers, more than double the numbers from January-March of 2019. As a result of this significant increase, many people in detention experience extreme physical discomfort: overcrowded conditions, shortages of food and water, lack of access to showers, overflowing toilets, bedbugs, and exposure to both heat and cold. Rodrigo’s story, featured in this newsletter, tells of his experience enduring these conditions for several months in Chiapas. The Mexican government has acknowledged the poor conditions in detention, and has committed $3.1 million to improve several main detention centers. However, immigration advocates are critical, saying that there should be comparable investment in Mexico’s asylum agency, which was overburdened and struggling even before the numbers of migrants increased.
As noted earlier in the article, there has been a significant increase in deportations in 2019, up 30% from last year. This number mostly reflects Central Americans who are returned, but in October, 311 Indian migrants—310 men and one woman—were returned to New Delhi from Mexico. This is unprecedented in either form or number, and it was sent as a warning to all unauthorized migrants in Mexico. As Francisco Garduño, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute said about the deportation, “This is a warning to all transcontinental migrants…No matter if they’re from Mars, we’re going to send you all the way back to India, to Cameroon, to Africa.” In general, though, people from other continents remain more complicated to repatriate given the long distances, and so southern border cities like Tapachula have become unlikely cosmopolitan centers where many people from the African continent, Pakistan, India, and beyond exist in a kind of limbo as they await visas or answers that are increasingly slow in coming.
The new face of Mexican immigration enforcement was also evident in the country’s response to a recent exodus of migrants who were en route to the border with the U.S. In early October, approximately 2,000 people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America were traveling through Mexico when National Guard troops and federal police intercepted them about 25 miles north of Tapachula. This stands in contrast to the much-publicized caravans of late 2018, when little was done to impede their passage, and the change is in part due to the presence of National Guard on northbound highways and at other entry routes along the southern border.
At the same time that enforcement efforts have increased in Mexico this year, requests for asylum are also notably higher. As of October, there have been 54,000 applications submitted for asylum in Mexico in 2019, an increase from just under 30,000 in all of 2018 and 1,296 in 2013. (Since 2015, asylum requests have doubled annually and the number of people seeking asylum in 2019 is expected to reach 80,000.) If this trend continues, Mexico could be one of the top 10 asylum-receiving countries in the world. Most of the people who seek asylum in Mexico are from Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Cuba. This increase may be due in part to increasingly long odds of winning asylum in the United States, as well as the broader definition of asylum that exists in Mexico than in the US or in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Mexico also recognizes a right to asylum based on “generalized violence; foreign aggression; internal conflicts; massive violations of human rights; and other circumstances leading to a serious disturbance of public order,” which could extend the right to refugee status for many people fleeing gang-related violence in Central America. However, advocates question how often the National Institute of Migration informs people of their right to request asylum within Mexico.
The agency in charge of asylum in Mexico, COMAR (Commission for the Aid to Refugees), is struggling to keep pace. COMAR has 48 employees nationally, and only one of these employees can give final approval on all cases. Two-thirds of all asylum applications are evaluated in Tapachula, and asylum-seekers must remain there for the duration of the process, which can take many months. This, in addition to the bottleneck created as people await visas for passage through Mexico, has left Tapachula dealing with record numbers of migrants and straining local shelters. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has stepped in with personnel and funding, including for a new intake center, but it is still not sufficient to meet the agency’s needs.
ATTACKS AGAINST HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
The environment of increased militarization that prevails in both Mexico and the U.S. overwhelmingly affects migrants and asylum-seekers; however, advocates, activists, and human-rights defenders have come under surveillance and suffered attacks as well. (In some cases, the human-rights defenders are also migrants or asylum-seekers.) The much-publicized trial and retrial of Scott Warren in Tucson is one example of this, but it is far from isolated. As a comprehensive report recently released by Frontline Defenders documents, human rights defenders are regularly criminalized and arrested in the U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala, generally for providing humanitarian aid or operating emergency shelters. Based on the report’s interviews with 21 human rights defenders, the persecution comes at the hands of both state agencies as well as criminal groups. When it is due to the former, the consequences come in the form of arrests, interrogation, and the threat or reality of up to 24 years’ imprisonment. It can also take the form of defamation, deportation, stigmatization, physical attacks, and raids on shelters. For human-rights defenders who are immigrants, members of the LGBT community, or women, the abuse additionally includes gendered, racialized, and sexualized threats and attacks.
As Mexico expands its efforts to deter undocumented migrants from passing through the country, many of the consequences of increased militarization that the U.S. has experienced will afflict Mexico, as well. When the United States adopted a policy of “prevention through deterrence” in the 1990s, fortifying formal ports of entry in an effort to discourage unauthorized migration, people began to cross through more isolated and harsh parts of the border in order to fulfill their need for safety, well-being, and to provide for themselves and their loved ones. The result was a dramatic increase in death and suffering. As Mexico increasingly moves in a similar direction of “prevention through deterrence,” it is highly probable that the deaths of migrants will rise there. Any policy that results in greater deaths of people in migration is a failure, and both Mexico and the U.S.—and countries around the world—must better wrestle with the question of how to respect the right to dignity, life, and safety of people in migration.