With pressure from the United States, Mexican immigration enforcement holds migrants in the south of the country, where many feel they have no choice but to request asylum there. After so many requests for protection, the system collapsed.
It took Denaud two months to travel across nine countries, starting in Chile, to reach Tapachula, a city in southern Mexico near the border with Guatemala. It took him another year and a half to cross just one more country to reach the San Diego-Tijuana border to request asylum.
The 39-year-old Haitian man, like thousands of other migrants, was stuck in Tapachula, trapped by Mexican immigration enforcement that has ramped up under pressure from the United States.
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Under Republican and Democrat administrations alike, the United States has pushed Mexico to stop migrants from getting anywhere close to its border. Mexico has obliged, sending its National Guard to support immigration officials in its southern region.
Though many do still reach the U.S. border, asylum seekers who try to sneak out of the city run the risk of ending up in Siglo XXI, a notorious immigration detention center and the largest in Mexico. They could also be deported to the countries they fled or expelled in a less official process back to Guatemala.
As part of this pressure, the United States has also encouraged Mexico to become a place where asylum seekers find refuge rather than a transit country. But conditions for migrants in Mexico are notoriously difficult as they are often targets for assaults, kidnappings or worse, and Mexico’s ability to protect refugees — or even process them successfully — remains an open question.
With no other option, tens of thousands, including Denaud, turn to the Mexican asylum system to request protection there — or to obtain documents with the hope of transiting Mexico more safely.
But receiving asylum in Mexico can complicate cases for those who do continue north to the United States, where they often feel safer and have loved ones to support them.
The San Diego Union-Tribune is not fully identifying Denaud or other asylum seekers in this article due to their ongoing claims and vulnerable situations.
Asylum applications in Mexico have already more than tripled in just nine months of 2021 from what they were in all of 2018. In 2019, the United States threatened Mexico with tariffs if the country did not stop migrants from reaching the United States.
The strategy worked. According to the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, the Mexican agency responsible for processing protection requests from migrants, commonly known by its acronym COMAR, about 70 percent of the people who asked for refuge in Mexico so far this year made the request in Tapachula.
“I think what we’re seeing down here in Tapachula is a clear example of externalization of the U.S. border,” said Andrew Bahena, who monitors human rights conditions at the Mexico-Guatemala border for the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA.
Conditions in the border town are dire. Racism, xenophobia and lack of resources in the poorest state in Mexico make it difficult for asylum seekers to survive while they wait for documents that would give them permission to travel out of the region.
Like thousands of others, after a grueling journey through Central America, Denaud found himself in Tapachula, asking COMAR to recognize him as a refugee because he saw no other option.
In 2015, he’d fled Haiti, where a combination of increased gang violence and kidnappings, natural disasters and a tumultuous political environment has caused an exodus over the past decade. Like many Haitians, Denaud ended up in Chile.
Then Chile began trying to force Haitians to leave by refusing to renew their permission to be in the country. Many Haitians, including Denaud, also experienced discrimination there from employers, neighbors, store owners and officials.
Despite all this, Denaud lost his asylum case in Mexico. He appealed, but the wait for a decision became unbearable as he felt more and more unsafe.
“When one flees danger, one enters into another danger,” he said in Spanish.
With the help of U.S.-affiliated attorneys, because of the danger they were in, Denaud and his partner — a Salvadoran woman he met in Tapachula — were able to get an appointment to enter the United States and begin an asylum case there. That program no longer exists.
For migrants who arrived in Tapachula this summer, the situation was even more dire. Because of the increased demand, COMAR stopped offering appointments, the first step in Mexico’s refugee screening process, for several months.
That meant asylum seekers were stuck in southern Mexico without access to any system of protection. While they waited for the process to open back up, they faced the potential of being rounded up by Mexican immigration officials or National Guard and removed from the country.
They also couldn’t travel to other COMAR offices around Mexico without risking getting caught and returned to Tapachula, detained or deported.
The series of checkpoints and National Guard patrols and slow processing of asylum claims have created what Bahena referred to as a “prison city.”
But the city doesn’t have the resources to shelter everyone trapped there.
Chiapas has the highest percentage of residents living in poverty of any state in Mexico. Roughly 75 percent live below the poverty line, and just under 30 percent live in extreme poverty, according to data published in 2020 by Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social.
Migrants have tried moving together as groups, often referred to as caravans, to get out of southern Mexico. Each time, news reports have surfaced of the Mexican National Guard using violent force to try to stop them.
What awaits them in the north might not be as different as they think.
Thousands have found themselves stranded along the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump administration policies, some of which have continued under President Joe Biden.
Images of Border Patrol agents chasing down Haitian men in Del Rio, Texas, caused a similar public outcry to the reaction to videos of Mexican National Guard treatment of Haitians earlier this year. Many of the Haitians who crossed into Texas that week ended up expelled to Haiti.
The southern border region has less economic opportunity and fewer resources to support new arrivals. The northern border is more expensive and where much of the violence against migrants occurs.
Olga Sánchez Martínez, who runs one of three migrant shelters in Tapachula, said she thinks the Mexican government’s strategies in the south are meant to keep more migrants from ending up stuck in its northern border cities.
“I don’t know what’s better for migrants to be stuck there or to be stuck here,” Sánchez Martínez said.
For several months this summer, the Tapachula branch of COMAR stopped offering appointments to newcomers, meaning that asylum seekers could not start the process to request refuge in Mexico.
“We’ve never had so many people arriving at the same time,” said Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Silva, head of COMAR. “We were overwhelmed. We were not able to cope with the situation.”
Hundreds gathered every morning outside one of the agency’s offices. Those who had managed to get appointments before the shutdown lined up behind security fencing.
The rest milled around in the street, waiting for officials to come out with any updates.
Women passed by carrying plastic tubs of breads on their heads, calling out in Haitian Creole about the quality of their goods. Men pushed wheelbarrows and carried buckets selling bottled water. Other street vendors peddled aguas frescas and snacks from tricycle carts.
“I come every day because they change the system, and if you don’t come every day, you don’t know if it changed,” said one man from Haiti on a late September morning. “If you’re not there, then you don’t get an appointment.”
The rules for winning asylum in Mexico are not the same as the United States. Mexico’s requirements to qualify are actually broader, opening up the potential for protection to a wider group of people fleeing their homelands.
In the United States, people requesting asylum must prove they fled their home because they were persecuted or feared being persecuted based on their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a social group such as the LGBTQ+ community. They have to show that that persecution is either by the government itself or by a group the government cannot or will not control.
Mexico adds gender-based persecution to that list of categories, and it also opens up protection to people who fled their homelands because of generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflict, major human rights violations or other circumstances that have seriously shaken public order — events that put the lives of residents at risk but don’t necessarily target individuals because of their identities.
Mexico’s overall grant rate for 2021 is about 74 percent, according to data published by COMAR.
As in the United States, that rate can vary widely from nationality to nationality. Hondurans, who make up the largest group of cases decided this year, were granted protection in 84 percent of cases. Haitians, the next biggest group, were granted protection in 29 percent of cases.
In the United States, asylum seekers who don’t have visas to enter the U.S. generally have their cases decided by immigration judges in a system that is marked by disparities and bias, as revealed by The San Diego Union-Tribune last year. In Mexico, a series of appointments leading up to an interview with an official from COMAR determines whether someone qualifies.
After Mexico’s process in Tapachula broke down this year, COMAR asked those with appointments in the coming months to appear at Estadio Olímpico, a sports stadium, in late September to verify they were still waiting in the city to be processed.
Those who showed up at the COMAR office that week for previously scheduled appointments were sent to the stadium to re-register. Anyone who didn’t appear at the stadium would have their appointment cancelled.
On the first day, parents held toddlers and infants in a line that wound through the parking lot. That line grew all morning even as workers continually called forward families and individuals to the series of stations where they confirmed their identities and received new appointment dates.
Meanwhile, at a nearby human rights center that provides legal orientations to asylum seekers, hundreds of Haitians gathered. Advocates worked quickly to move the crowd into the building’s courtyard to avoid having the National Guard show up, which had happened before.
After about two weeks, COMAR began offering new appointment scheduling at the stadium. So many people showed up on that first day that some had to come back later in the week to try again.
Five weeks into the operation, Ramírez Silva said, COMAR had scheduled appointments with 41,000 people.
With so many asylum seekers stuck in Tapachula and only three shelters there that serve migrants, many struggle with finding places to live while they wait. Having nowhere else to go, many sleep outside one of the shelters or even outside the immigration detention center.
For those that have the means to find a room or a home to rent, conditions are far from ideal. People cram together to make ends meet. Many have no furniture at all and sleep on the floor.
“It’s not favorable conditions to live as a human being,” said Roel, a Cuban man seeking asylum with his wife and two children, of the place they were renting.
An engineer, he’d fled the political situation in Cuba to Chile only to be told he and his family could not stay, much like Denaud. He worried that their money would soon run out.
Outside the Jesus El Buen Pastor shelter, run by Sánchez Martínez, two young Nicaraguan men who fled the deadly Ortega regime waited one morning in late September to find out if they would be able to sleep there. The two crossed from Guatemala the day before and slept at a park.
That morning, they’d called the shelter and heard there were beds available. By the time they arrived, it wasn’t clear if there would be room for them that night.
The shelter initially housed amputees who fell from la bestia, the north-bound train that used to pass through the area. It expanded to meet the changing needs of migrants.
The two-story buildings are separated into rooms for men and rooms for women with children. Some sleep on bunk beds, others on mats on the floor. Even the children’s play area has been converted into sleeping quarters.
The meals, prepared by people staying there, are simple — usually rice, beans and tortillas.
Life at the region’s newest shelter, Hospitalidad y Solidaridad, contrasts starkly with these experiences. But capacity there is low relative to the need.
While Sánchez Martínez said her shelter could squeeze up to 1,000 people, Hospitalidad y Solidaridad can hold a maximum of 300, which it has halved during the pandemic.
The shelter, which receives funding from the U.N. refugee agency, known in Mexico by its Spanish acronym ACNUR, is only for people applying for asylum in Mexico or who have already been recognized as refugees.
It has a large courtyard with space for a sports court and a playground. The shelter hosts a soccer league to help migrants integrate into the community.
One Honduran family adopted a puppy they found on the street. The shelter approved as long as the family cared for Nina properly.
“They need a way to put the broken pieces of their lives back together now that they’re here in Mexico,” said Fernanda Acevedo, the shelter’s general coordinator.
At the northern border in Tijuana, many residents take in asylum seekers or bring food and other donations to where they are camped near the border. That type of aid isn’t visible in Tapachula, where attitudes about foreigners exacerbate the lack of support from locals.
“There’s a lot of misinformation,” Acevedo said. “That generates increased discrimination and xenophobia.”
Besides the struggles for food and adequate housing, there is an underlying question of safety for many of the asylum seekers forced to stay in Tapachula or in Mexico more generally.
Yuriria Salvador, a human rights worker with the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova A.C. in Tapachula, said it shouldn’t be a surprise if people who don’t feel safe in Tapachula don’t want to stay there.
“No one should force me to wait in a place where my life is in danger,” she said. “It’s a violation of the principle of asylum.”
Central Americans often feel unsafe because they are still close to their home countries, and their persecutors — gang members, abusive partners or otherwise — often appear in Tapachula looking for them.
Racism and xenophobia among residents and officials in the region make the city feel unsafe for many migrants, particularly Black asylum seekers. Some landlords even have rules against renting to foreigners.
Salvador said that residents’ perspective is influenced by the government’s treatment of migrants.
“Each time there’s a collective movement of people, the response is the National Guard and Army,” Salvador said, referring to groups earlier this year that tried to move north together but were beaten back by Mexican military. “The message is they have to contain the migrants, this idea that they’re the enemy.”
Haitians in the city in particular face racist treatment from Tapachula locals and officials. Even if they win asylum, they can still be targeted and forced to leave the country.
Johny, a Haitian man who was recognized as a refugee by Mexico, tried to take a bus to another city in southern Mexico to find work to support his pregnant wife after he received asylum. But Mexican officials took him off the bus and expelled him, he said. He had to pay a smuggler to cross him back into the country where he had refugee status.
“Now I am afraid,” he said in the Spanish that he learned during his time in Chile. “I don’t understand why they did that.”
COMAR head Ramírez Silva said that people like Johny who are granted asylum are legally able to move throughout Mexico and should not be expelled. He did not know about Johny’s case specifically, but speaking generally, he said that expelling a refugee was “ridiculous.”
Witnessing the rampant racism in the area has been frustrating for Arturo Viscarra, an attorney with CHIRLA based in Tapachula.
“For Black migrants, I don’t think Mexico is a place for them, and it hurts me to say that,” Viscarra said. “I don’t think that it’s possible in the short term or medium term for it to become a place for them. You’re going to face a level of racism that — it’s a hazard. It’s dangerous.”
While migrants might feel they need asylum in Mexico in order to travel north safely, obtaining refugee status there actually makes their cases in the United States more complicated.
Asylum seekers who “firmly resettled” in another country before coming to the United States are not eligible for asylum unless they can show they also need protection from that country.
Those who obtained permission to stay in Mexico would have to prove that they didn’t actually resettle there or that they faced persecution in Mexico as well.
Viscarra thinks the fact that more people are resorting to requesting asylum in Mexico because of the increased enforcement is likely either part of the U.S. government’s intention in pressuring Mexico to keep people in the south or at least a side effect that the United States sees as beneficial.
The legal community has been watching what will happen with the cases that do reach the United States since Mexican enforcement ramped up in the past two years.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t win,” Viscarra said. “The most salient factors remain do you have a competent attorney and which immigration court and which judge are you before.”
Increased enforcement and discrimination make it easier to prove that staying in Mexico is not an option, he said.
Still, many asylum seekers don’t know that requesting protection in Mexico could complicate their cases in the United States.
Diop, a 34-year-old who fled political persecution in Mauritania, said he didn’t end up applying for asylum in Tapachula because he found out that it could affect his case once he reached the U.S., where he had family and friends waiting to help him in Colorado. He was stuck in Tapachula for about five months in 2019.
He and other asylum seekers from African countries staged a protest for months outside an immigration office, even sleeping in tents there to maintain pressure on Mexican officials to let them proceed north.
He said his experiences in Tapachula made him feel like he wasn’t a human being.
“We were beaten by the police, military police and the federal police, and we were prevented the freedom to travel,” Diop said. “I was desperate, but finally God decided that that situation get to be over and then to continue the journey.”
He went to Tijuana, but within a week found himself in danger there as well, facing death threats after witnessing a crime. He crossed the border in eastern San Diego and ended up at Otay Mesa Detention Center. He was able to get out on bond as the COVID-19 outbreak there began.
Now, he feels safer than he has for the past decade of his life.
He recently got approved to work in the United States while he waits for his case to proceed.
“You take all that risk trying to get to a safe place. You don’t worry about what you will experience during your travel,” he said. “The most important thing is to arrive to your destination and stay safe in that place.”
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