Mexican organizations denounce efforts to criminalize migrants and those who assist them

Photo by Andrea González, from Colectivo Ustedes Somos Nosotros, Mexico.

April 22, 2019 – A growing backlash in Chiapas awaits the arrival of thousands of migrants at Mexico’s southern border.  Rising xenophobia – particularly against Central Americans – has been driven by news reports, communications, and advisories distributed by local media, private businesses, and municipal governments.  These stories have perpetuated the myth that the arrival of migrant groups will lead to increased crime.

A recent El Universal, survey also shows that negative reactions to Central American migrants has significantly increased in the last six months. The dissonance between the new government’s rhetoric and practice in regards to the migrant “caravans”. The federal government must articulate a strategy of attention and not criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers in an effort towards the respect and inclusion of this population.

The collective for the Observation and Monitoring of Human Rights in the South of Mexico, which has monitored the treatment of asylum-seekers and migrants since the large caravan in October 2018, has called for changes to the approach taken by the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in addressing migrants and asylum-seekers.  The collective’s press release raises particular concerns about the termination of humanitarian visas and the closing of National Institute of Migration (INM) offices in Tapachula, where migrants could previously apply for legal residency. The new Mexican administration has also increased the presence of enforcement officials from federal, state, and municipal police departments.  These actions have resulted in the detention and deportation of thousands of people. Detention is taking place in conditions of overcrowding with security and health risks for families and small children.

INM has issued an advisory to transportation companies, threatening drivers who lend their services to migrants and asylum seekers with criminal prosecution for human smuggling.  Organizations working in the South report that workers who are assisting and defending migrants were apprehended. There is an increasing concern among civil society organizations working on the ground over the changes in the Mexican government’s response to migrants and asylum seekers.

It is not clear to what extend these actions mark an explicit change of approach within the López Obrador administration.  But they do raise concerns about how the new government will balance its initial commitment to humanitarian protections and asylum, with increased pressures for enforcement from the United States.

National and local officials reinforce narratives criminalizing migration and demand transportation companies to control migration

The mayor of Huixtla, Chiapas recently warned residents of the pending arrival of foreigners, urging local businesses to close and families to remain in their homes.  This depiction of migrants and asylum-seekers as a dangerous threat fails to correspond to reality, according to Heyman Vásquez, a priest who has seen many of the caravan members over the past months, and only contributes to foster xenophobia.  

On April 16, 2019, the Legal Director of Human Rights and Transparency for the INM issued a memo addressed to Mexican transportation companies, reminding them of Articles 153 and 159 in federal Migration Law.  Article 153 states that businesses providing land, sea or air transportation to foreigners without documentation are subject to fines of 1,000 – 10,000 days of the current minimum wage salary.  Article 159 defines the criminal offense of smuggling of migrants, penalizing those who transport individuals without proper documentation for a profit, bring migrants into the country for a profit, or provide shelter and transportation to avoid migration controls with eight to sixteen years in prison.  This memo clearly intends to create a chilling effect on transportation companies who must verify the documentation of their passengers or face criminal prosecution for migrant smuggling.

The INM threats, combined with negative statements by local authorities, undermine already fragile support system for migrants. Assistance from local communities has been essential for migrants to continue their journey through Mexican territory.  With these actions, INM is trying to inhibit aid from the local population, increasing the vulnerability of foreigners, while criminalizing local acts of solidarity.

Foto cortesía Andrea González, del Colectivo Ustedes Somos Nosotros, México.

Migration enforcement from a national security perspective

Following the creation of the National Guard at the end of February, the Mexican Congress is advancing with the discussion of complementary legislation for this new entity.  The legislative debate indicates that both legislators and the Mexican society is beginning to comprehend the role of this hybrid between civil and military forces. According to draft legislation, the National Guard will be comprised of Federal Police members and surveillance units from the Secretaries of Defense and Navy, and will replace the federal civil police. The National Guard will be attached to the Department of Civil Security and Protection.  The goal is for the Guard to reach 60,000 members who will under the command of civil authority and will assume the functions of national security currently carried out by the military.

The National Guard will also assume control of immigration enforcement currently under the INM.  Granting this oversight to the National Guard entails adopting a national security perspective around migration enforcement: proposed legislation gives the National Guard enforcement authority in border regions and highways, with a mandate to work with INM in “securing” foreigners in migrant holding centers (detention centers).

The draft law for the Mexican National Guard confirms perceptions of a changing focus within migration policy.  The López Obrador administration has shifted 180 degrees with its response to irregular migration, moving away from a humanitarian framework to focus on national security concerns to justify apprehension detention, and deportation of individuals traveling through Mexico.

Statistics on migrants in Mexico

Small groups of people from the Central American and Caribbean “exodus” began to arrive in Mexico from Tecún Umán, Guatemala.  According to data from INM, paperwork was initiated for the first 900 individuals; however, the final number of arrivals is unknown.  On April 12, INM reported the arrival of approximately 350 people from Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, associated with another group of 2,000 people (unofficial numbers) who were already in transit through Mexico, heading for the United States.

In Tapachula, Chiapas, around 800 people from Cuba have been stranded after the government closed local INAMI migration offices in March.  Some migrants from this group have left in desperation, joining a group of Central Americans last Wednesday to form a “Way of the Cross” caravan during Holy Week and journey through Mexico by bus toward the northern border with the United States.

Deportations and Returns from and toward Mexico

On April 13, INM reported the deportation of 204 Central Americans.  This group included families with young children, the majority of whom were from Honduras.  The forced return took place by air from Veracruz to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

According to testimonials from shelters along migratory routes in Mexico, the majority of people from Honduras are fleeing violence, hunger and gang persecution.  As returnees, these families are vulnerable as soon as they arrive back in their country. Ironically, the Mexican government continues to insist migration must not be forced but rather addressed in a manner that respects human rights.  However, the Mexican government is not complying with the principle of non-refoulement for people who are at risk in their own countries.

On the other hand, the Migration Policy Unit (UPM) reports that from January to the present, the United States has deported 26,660 Mexican persons.  Deportations continue to be a preferred mechanism for governments without spurring any change in policies for reception, protection and support, once again creating a situation of greater vulnerability for those who are returned to their countries of origin.