September 5, 2021
Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration
On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.
There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.
“We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.
“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.
While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.
For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.
“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.
If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)
Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.
Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.
Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”
Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”
WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”
“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.
“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (Anarticle at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)
López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”
The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”
By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.