After five months of Central American “exodus,” migrants remain in precarious conditions.

CHICAGO,  March 15, 2019-  This update is based on a series of visits carried out by Alianza Americas staff with organizations in Mexico who are on the front lines of response to the mass exodus of people from Honduras, El Salvador  and Guatemala, as they move through Mexico toward the US. These learning exchange visits combined informational workshops about the asylum process in the United States with an assessment of humanitarian needs along the migration route, and informed our analysis of the current state of migration challenges in the Central America-Mexico-US migration corridor.

The most recent visit alerted us to three new developments. First, that the humanitarian visas are now being inspected, information is shared with countries of origin, and those with previous criminal convictions are deported.  Second, the government is taking active steps to disperse the large groups or “caravans” by offering bus transport; and thirdly that there are increasing trends toward crackdowns on those migrants who remain in Mexico, including limiting, or even criminalizing activities related to providing transport, housing and other services to migrants.

The exodus has become a local issue, one that local authorities seek to address by dispersing the groups, and/or making life more difficult for those who remain under their jurisdiction.  Federal authorities have mostly ceased efforts to detect and expel unauthorized immigrants, with some important exceptions–when they discover a criminal record in the country of origin; if the person attempts to leave Mexico (toward the US) at an unauthorized crossing, or when the person protests the actions of Mexican authorities.  Some of those clashes have resulted in violence. Many local officials appear to believe that the flows will disappear or normalize once people have work authorization in Mexico, granted with the humanitarian cards or visas.

Recently, the Alianza Americas team visited three shelters Coahuila, Hidalgo and Mexico City.  The following are some reflections from those visits.

Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna, Coahuila

Frontera Digna

In Piedras Negras, less than a mile from the US border, we visited this Catholic shelter, run by the Dominican priest ,José Obed Cuéllar.  The shelter reported serious human resources challenges because the municipality (which had been covering salaries) decided to reduce its support by 50%, causing the staff to resign.  At the time of our visit, Father Obed was operating the shelter himself, with the support of a few volunteers.

Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna provided services to 3,600 people in all of 2018. In 2019, by the end of February, it had already sheltered 1,150 people, most of whom were from Central America. The shelter has a maximum capacity of 80 people at one time, with space for women, men, and LGBTI populations. Father Obed reported that they are used to seeing mostly young people and mend, but in the past few months have seen a large number of children attempting to reunite with family members in the US.

The shelter bears the brunt of restrictions and ever-changing policies at the border, in a city that feels distant from other parts of Mexico or the US.  The policy of “metering” asylum requests has had a profound impact in Piedras Negras. People who seek asylum in the United States are obliged to sign onto lists that are maintained by municipal authorities and endure long waits.  Most people in Piedras Negras state a desire to apply for asylum, but have very little understanding of the process. There are no organizations offering legal guidance or representation, so asylum-seekers enter the process with very little understanding of the steps that it will require or the criteria that will be used to judge their requests.  

Two weeks prior to our visit, the situation was quite different.  More than 1500 people had arrived at the border and the municipal authorities attempted to contain them and restrict their movement by opening a makeshift shelter in a local factory.  Eventually, the Governor decided to close that shelter and break up the large group by sending them in buses to other cities along the border. Municipal authorities began a crackdown, prohibiting transportation and lodging providers from offering their services to foreigners, and threatening migrants who did not have a humanitarian protection card with deportation.  Those who still remain in Piedras Negras are increasingly anxious as they wait their turn to request asylum.

Under these precarious conditions, some individuals have decided to pursue other, more risky options.  A few tried to cross the Rio Grande, with the hope of being rescued by US Border Patrol and allowed to request asylum in the US.  Instead, they were rescued by Mexican authorities tasked with migrant protection (Grupos Betas), returned to Mexico, and deported.  The US policy of restricting access to asylum not only pushes people to risk their lives, it has generated a thriving business for traffickers.  Shelter workers report that “coyotes” are charging up to US$2,500 to show people the best place to cross the river. “Migrants are solid gold [for criminals], whomever can take advantage of them will do so,” said Father Obed Cuéllar.

Want more information: Check out our most recent webinar on the exodus, with presentations from shelters along Mexico’s northern border.

Casa del Migrante El Samaritano, Hidalgo

El Samaritano

In Hidalgo, about 50 miles from Mexico City along the train line, the Casa del Migrante El Samaritano serves as a temporary refuge for migrants.  For years, this was a key place where migrants and refugees would get on the infamous train known as “La Bestia” (the beast), because the train slowed or stopped here.  Now, despite the fact that the train now speeds through this zone, the flow of migrants and refugees continues along the old route.

The Good Samaritan Migrant House offers migrants on the move a quick respite from the journey: a meal, a bath, access to basic medical care, and the opportunity to communicate with family members.  It does not offer an overnight shelter, but still serves about 60 to 80 people a day in its operating hours of 10 am to 3 pm.

The Migrant House is located right next to the train tracks, reflecting the history of this migration route. This area is also a popular route for narcotics and other illicit traffic, and the people taking shelter here reported extremely difficult and dangerous conditions along the route.  The security risk also limits the hours that it is able to operate. This center of respite provides an important service in a difficult context, and operates exclusively on private donations.

Casa Mambré, Mexico City

Casa Mambré

This Mexico City Shelter was founded in 2012 by Scalabrinian nuns and providing legal and mental health services to those take shelter there, as well as to others in Mexico City.  Casa Mambré focuses specifically on people who have been victims of crimes, LGBTQ populations, and unaccompanied children. In Casa Mambré we carried out a workshop and exchange visit with staff to discuss asylum and other forms of complementary protection, exploring the differences between how those processes work in Mexico and the United States. The rapid changes in asylum processes and policies make this kind of exchange especially important and urgent as shelters and defenders struggle to provide up-to-date information that migrants can use to inform their decisions.  

These three shelter visits, as well as the previous ones, in 2018 and early this year, have highlighted the complex vulnerabilities of migrants and refugees in Mexico.   Shelters, “Migrant Houses”, and community kitchens are doing their best to offer protection, food, clothes, and a place to sleep for thousands of people.  But their capacity is overwhelmed by the scale of the need. As frontline defenders, they have a unique window on needs and challenges of migrants in Mexico, but they are often left out of the political discussions around migration and asylum policy in Mexico.

Casa Mambré

Humanitarian Visas- Assistance or Enforcement?

In January the new López Obrador government expanded its program of humanitarian visa cards, offering migrants the ability to enter and leave Mexico or to stay for one year, with work authorization. Offered at the southern border, these humanitarian cards responded specifically to the mass exodus of people from Central America.

The government of Mexico reports that it issued 18,000 visas in the first month of 2019. Reports from groups on the ground indicate that there have been interruptions and suspensions of the program, and instances when the demand far exceeded officials’ capacity to respond. The visa does offer a measure of security, by granting the migrant authorized presence in the country. However, it does not guarantee access to humanitarian assistance, integration services, much less the principle of non refoulement. Issuance of the humanitarian card requires collection of biometric data and an inquiry into previous criminal activity in the origin country.  It is not clear exactly if and how that information is being shared, leading some advocates to worry that those who are subsequently deported may be at elevated risk.

The new government in Mexico has an important and urgent challenge as it balances the pressures from the United States to curtail migration, with the urgent needs for humanitarian protection in its territory. Bringing officials up to speed on the specific needs of this population will require a more significant engagement with the people who are working with them every single day.  A “humanitarian” visa that does not come with any support for humanitarian protections will not be sufficient.

As people do manage to enter into the United States and seek asylum, we will again face these challenges around basic services, legal representation and integration.  Our next blog will speak to that challenge.

You can donate to the brave front-line defenders in shelters in Mexico via our page. Alianza Americas is donating 100% of funds collected through this window to the groups we have visited.