Jyohana, a Honduran woman who was eventually recognized as a refugee through Mexico’s asylum system, recounts the difficulties she faced while she waited
Jyohana was not allowed to speak in the apartment building where she lived in Tapachula. If she did, she would have probably lost her home.
That’s because the building where the 32-year-old Honduran woman has rented in the southern Mexican city for much of this year does not allow foreigners. It’s written into the rules and regulations.
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Finding housing in the small city with only three migrant shelters would be difficult enough for the thousands of asylum seekers trapped there by Mexican immigration enforcement even without the rampant xenophobia in the region.
The anti-migrant sentiment makes surviving difficult, let alone acclimating to the place where many fleeing for their lives feel forced to request refuge. The challenges are even more difficult for Black migrants, who face added layers of discrimination from Tapachultecos.
Businesses there often list Mexican nationality as a requirement on job postings, and some neighborhoods won’t even let migrants enter to visit friends who live there.
“No veo como en México están brindando seguridad a los refugiados. Al contrario, es racismo,” Jyohana said. I don’t see how Mexico is providing security for refugees. On the contrary, it’s racism.
Jyohana’s landlord decided to break the rules for her and her two children because the landlord was a client at the under-the-table nail salon business Jyohana ran out of the hotel room she had been living in.
Jyohana’s accent as a Honduran is easily distinguishable from the Mexican Spanish spoken by locals. To avoid getting kicked out of the apartment, the landlord told Jyohana not to speak in the hallway or with the door open. She said nothing to her neighbors. She brought only Mexican clients to her home to do their nails.
“Esto me parece muy indignante la verdad,” Jyohana said. Truthfully, this seems very outrageous.
As insulting as it was, the apartment was the only place she could afford to be while she waited a seemingly indeterminate amount of time to be able to leave the city.
Jyohana asked not to be fully identified because she believes the people she fled back home might still try to find her.
It took roughly six months to win her asylum case and be recognized as a refugee in Mexico. But she remained stuck in Tapachula even after that.
She was only able to relocate elsewhere in Mexico once she had an additional permit from Mexican immigration officials. In the meantime, all she could do was wait in a city where she did not feel wanted, welcomed or safe.
For most of her life, Jyohana had no intention of leaving Honduras. When she saw news about the migrant caravans on TV in 2018, she thought they were crazy.
“Ahora que estoy en esta situación, comprendo que no es que ellos quieren, es que se los forzaron a hacerlo,” she said. Now that I’m in this situation, I understand that it’s not that they want to, it’s that they were forced to do it.
Back-to-back hurricanes in November 2020 destroyed her home and much of her city, and she was forced to move to Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital, to earn enough income to survive. Once there, she built up her beauty product import business and, working multiple jobs, was able to get enough money together to build a house for herself and her children, she said.
Then the extortion started.
She received threats, and one day, gangsters hit her in the head with a gun. She called Honduras’ anti-gang forces, and when they didn’t show up, she fled.
She went to a prosecutor’s office near the Honduran-Guatemalan border and denounced the gang members who attacked her. Attorneys took down her information but it was clear to her that they could not protect her. And, she had likely put herself in more danger by coming forward.
Jyohana thought through her options. She knew the gang also had a strong presence in El Salvador and Guatemala. She did not think she would be safe in either country.
She would have liked to go to the United States, she said, where she has family, but she didn’t want to have to cross the border illegally or live undocumented. Because of a policy the Trump administration started at the beginning of the pandemic and continued by the Biden administration, there is no way for asylum seekers to request protection without crossing illegally into the U.S. And even then, they can end up expelled to Mexico or their home countries.
Jyohana decided to go to Mexico, where she has some distant relatives, but never made it to them after crossing from Guatemala. Like thousands before and since, Jyohana got stuck in Tapachula. Not wanting to risk the lives of herself and her children attempting to sneak past the Mexican National Guard who support immigration officials’ work in the region, she did the only other thing that she could do — she requested asylum.
The Mexican asylum agency’s office in Tapachula was overwhelmed to the point that it shut down to new cases later in the summer, but Jyohana was able to begin the process before that happened. Still, it was difficult to get information about what the process entailed. At first she was told it would take 45 days to process her claim — Mexican law requires cases to be finished within 45 work days, or 90 in extraordinary circumstances. But Jyohana’s wait to be recognized as a refugee stretched much longer.
So far in 2021, the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR, the Mexican asylum agency, has received nearly 80,000 cases that represent more than 123,000 people. Officials have made decisions in just under 35,000 cases this year, less than half of the number received.
While she waited, Jyohana learned the gang took over her home in Tegucigalpa. A security guard had been found dead. Gangsters kept her car, her laptop, her work phone, everything.
“¿Cómo le explico? Yo perdí mi vida. Yo no tengo ya la vida que tenía,” she said. How do I explain it to you? I lost my life. I don’t have anymore the life that I had.
From the moment she set foot on Mexican soil, Jyohana said, she was made to feel like an “invader.”
Not wanting to sneak into the country, she walked across the bridge from Tecún Umán in Guatemala to the Mexican port of entry that leads to Ciudad Hidalgo, a small border town near Tapachula. She was still wearing the pajamas she wore as she fled her home a little over a week before in a panic. The wound on her head was still visible.
The Mexican border officials yelled at her, she said, and told her that she couldn’t be there, that she had to go back to Guatemalan soil. The feeling of rejection stung, but she’d been prepared by human rights workers in Guatemala for what officials would likely tell her when she told them she was an asylum seeker, and she waited. She knew that human rights workers would soon be there to support her from the Mexican side.
She tried to reassure her children, who were getting increasingly nervous. She told them not to take it personally.
If the human rights workers hadn’t come, she said, she’s not sure if she would’ve been able to withstand the pressure to return to Guatemala. But knowing what awaited her if she decided to return home helped her insist that she be allowed to seek asylum.
“¿A qué voy a volver? ¿Para que me maten? Es muy extraño como manejan ese proceso acá. Esto no es nada para todo lo que me ha pasado,” she said. What am I going to go back to? So that they can kill me? It’s very strange how they run that process here. This is nothing compared with what has happened to me.
With support from Andrew Bahena from Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, Jyohana was eventually able to enter Mexico after about three hours of waiting.
At the migrant shelter where she was initially taken, she noticed young men with gang tattoos — some the same gang that she’d fled. One of them attacked her teenage son. She left the shelter early the next morning, spending the little money she had on a hotel room until her client offered to rent her the apartment where she couldn’t talk.
When she was out in public, she noticed the way people would look at her and the tone they would use to speak to her.
“Yo siento que aquí a uno lo ven como una amenaza. Sienten que nosotros no somos personas igual que ellos,” she said. I feel that here they see one as a threat. They feel that we are not people equal to them.
She tried to shield her children from the experience, keeping them at home as much as possible.
“Estoy tratando de cuidar su infancia,” she said. I’m trying to protect their childhood.
One day she was too tired from her work doing nails to cook, so she went to get hamburgers for her children at a restaurant downtown. Immigration officials saw her walking, she said, and they detained her without saying anything to her.
Her children were waiting back at the apartment for her to bring them food, and there was nothing she could do. Finally, after hours in custody, she was able to explain her immigration status to officials, that she had a pending asylum case, and they let her go.
“Eso para mí fue horrible y que bueno que yo andaba sola. Imagínese si yo hubiera andado con mis niños,” Jyohana said. That, for me, was horrible, and thank goodness that I was alone. Imagine if I had been with my children.
For all her struggles, Jyohana was luckier than many asylum seekers who end up in Tapachula.
She had the support of multiple human rights organizations. She found a landlord willing to rent to her. With her income doing nails, she was able to feed her children.
When she went out in Tapachula, whether to get food or check on her case, she saw migrant families, particularly women and children, starving on the streets. Many of the children were so malnourished that she could see their bones, she said. She started taking food to share with them.
She tried to teach some of the women how to do nails.
“Hay personas más vulnerables que yo que ni siquiera pueden trabajar, mujeres que de toda su vida han dependido de su esposo y todo y son las que están allá afuera pidiendo alimento para sus niños, que vienen huyendo y no saben exactamente a lo que vienen acá,” she said. There are people here more vulnerable than me who can’t even work, women who have depended their whole lives on their husbands, and they are the ones there outside asking for food for their children, who have come fleeing and they don’t know exactly what they’re getting into here.
She was particularly angry at the way local Tapachultecos treated Haitians. She was forced to watch silently as her neighbors mistreated Haitians from other nearby buildings. She hoped to denounce her neighbors once she was finally able to leave Tapachula.
Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit that supports migrants, particularly Black migrants at the U.S. border and in Mexico, said that her organization has received reports of racist attacks, from racial slurs to police brutality, against Haitians in Tapachula.
Her colleague Joelle Julien, who went to Tapachula as a research consultant for the organization, said racism affects Haitians’ access to housing, food, health care and education in the city.
Advertised rent prices substantially increase when Haitians show up to inquire about a room, Julien said. Taxis also charge more.
One man, Jozef said, lost his job working in a small shop there because locals told the owner they would no longer buy anything if the man stayed.
That, Jozef said, illustrates a key distinction between Black migrants’ experience and that of Jyohana, who was able to keep her apartment as long as she didn’t speak.
“For the Black migrants, they cannot escape. They show up, they know they don’t belong,” Jozef said. “They don’t have to speak to have this extreme prejudice against them. Their very presence is unwelcome.”
She thinks the situation that Black migrants face while stuck in Tapachula is deliberate on the part of the United States government, which has pressured Mexico to stop migrants from reaching U.S. soil.
“They cannot make the journey back — it’s simply impossible,” Jozef said. “They cannot move forward. They don’t have shelter or food. So therefore, they are literally being put in that space to die.”
Jyohana checked on her case with the Mexican asylum office constantly. She believes her persistence got her an answer faster that she might’ve otherwise, but it was still painfully slow.
While she waited, she built a makeshift kitchen out of crates and a portable burner. She bought air mattresses for her and her children.
At the end of September, she got a phone call from the office that her results had been received. Anxious, she went to find out whether she’d been recognized as a refugee. But when she arrived at the COMAR office in downtown Tapachula, workers told her that her that they didn’t have the documents for her case yet. She would have to come back when they called her next.
She left devastated. It was as if the system were mocking her, she said.
It would be another two weeks before officials called again to give her an appointment to come for her answer. The night before her appointment, anxiety kept her awake, aided by a hole in her air mattress that flattened her makeshift bed.
When an official handed her the piece of paper officially recognizing her family as refugees, she shook with emotion. When she told her children, she said, they cried an ocean.
But, officials told her, she couldn’t yet leave Tapachula. She had to complete another step in the process to get a permanent residency document from the Instituto Nacional de Migration, Mexico’s immigration agency, which is separate from COMAR.
While she waited for that final step, she was robbed at a grocery store. The thieves took everything, she said, including her asylum paperwork.
In December, she was finally able to relocate.
She’s still worried about how the experience has affected her children.
“Lo que me mata y me sigue matando es la situación de que yo no quiero que su infancia queda tan marcada, tan fea,” Jyohana said. What kills me and what keeps killing me is the situation that I don’t want their childhood to be so troubled, so ugly.
Walled Off: Mexico’s role in migration
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