By Laura Weiss, NYU CLACS student
My research this summer has to do with social movement responses to human rights abuses that have arisen or worsened as a result of U.S.-Mexico policy. One of my case examples for my thesis will be to explore the buildup and consequences of the Southern Border Plan – and the responses by NGOs and activist groups in Mexico and the United States.
Recently, I had the opportunity to join a delegation with the American Friends Service Committee on human rights, migration and militarization in Mexico, for a portion of their two-week trip, to the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, and its outskirts, on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It was a great opportunity to see firsthand a lot of what I’ve studied on the Southern Border and connect with a group of inspiring activists, researchers, journalists and filmmakers interested in similar topics. Going to Tapachula, meeting with human rights groups, and seeing the border zones deepened and complicated my understanding of the migration situation in Southern Mexico today.
Contextualizing the Southern Border Plan
Before coming to Mexico, I’d read a lot about the Southern Border Plan, or Plan Frontera Sur. The program, with the stated intention of improving border and human security on the 541 mile border between Mexico and Guatemala, was announced shortly after the “child migrant crisis” of 2014. In the summer of 2014, 70,000 Central American children arrived at the US-Mexico border, seeking refuge from the life-threatening conditions they faced in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The program aimed to stop migrants and asylum-seekers in Mexico, before they reached the United States, and allotted funding for more migration officers, as well as new detection technologies and detention centers, with support from the United States. The plan also included methods to dissuade migrants and asylum-seekers from boarding the infamous Bestia cargo train that many traveling through Mexico have used as transportation northward – by speeding it up and inserting posts along the trail to make it more difficult to board.
The disbursement of funding has been extremely opaque, and denial hasn’t helped make it any clearer. When I was in Puebla, Mexico, in January for a course on social welfare and child migrants through NYU’s School of Social Work, both the National Migration Institute (INM) delegate in Puebla and US Embassy representatives in Mexico City denied any financial pressure or support from the US government for the plan. But the law begs to differ. The congressional appropriations for 2015 clearly show that at least $75 million was appropriated to Mexico to secure its southern borders, that in addition to the yearly budget for the US-Mexico bilateral security initiative, Plan Mérida, which has included over $2.6 billion in U.S. funding since 2008.
Meanwhile, measures to help improve services for Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries have come much more slowly than those securitizing the southern border. The US and Mexico have both defied international law that state that a person cannot be sent back to a country where they face threats to their life and person. As I wrote in an article, “Secure Borders Now, Protect People Later,” for NACLA in February, it wasn’t until January 2016 that the US government announced any sort of specific refugee program to allow Central American child migrants to remain in the country. By national security measures, however, Plan Frontera Sur seemed to work—at least in the short term. Detention and deportation rates from Mexico to Northern triangle countries increased by 40% in the year followed the passage of Plan Frontera Sur, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, more recent estimates show that the number arriving at the US-Mexico border is once again rising.
With all of this information in mind, I set off to Tapachula.
Border Buildup Versus Border Belt
When I arrived in Tapachula with the group, we met with the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, a fascinating organization doing important work out of Tapachula and in the southwest border region of Chiapas, Mexico. Gerardo, a staff member at the Centro took us to two border crossings: one at Talísman, about 30 kilometers from Tapachula, and one at the Rio Suchiate, about 60 kilometers from Tapachula.
The border crossing itself, an imposing concrete gate, seemed largely empty. There wasn’t much sign of officers or police anywhere. Next to the crossing was a large red building, the INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración) office. Dozens of people waited outside, some sitting, taking a rest from carrying their large backpacks, which lay in a pile in the center of the patio outside the office. Our curious group immediately busted out their cameras, but the air was clearly uneasy.
One man approached us, saying “no se puede sacar fotos” (you can’t take photos here) – apparently, it’s prohibited to take photographs of government buildings in Mexico. The vibe at the border didn’t seem overtly threatening, but the environment was thick with uneasiness and suspicion. The overt, violent threats had come before, and would likely come again in the form of bureaucratic games these migrants would face, which we learned more about later.
Next, we drove to the border at the Río Suchiate, next to Ciudad Hidalgo, the notoriously porous border crossing downriver from a large INM office, where goods and people cross freely on rafts made of driftwood and tires. Here, instead of concrete was grass, and instead of uneasiness was an air of relaxed habit. The men who sprinted up and down stairs loading freight onto the rafts, despite the intense heat, were clearly doing work they had done every day for quite some time. Around the river bank were families eating and selling water and candy, and bike taxis.
The relationship between the Mexican government and the Suchiate crossing, Gerardo explained, is more based on commerce and trade than migration. The Mexican government has long proportioned seasonal and daylong work visas for people coming from Guatemala for short periods of time, and tends to turn a blind eye to the openness of the crossing. In fact, many Chiapacenos have seen themselves as much more akin to their Southern neighbors in Guatemala than to the distant bureaucracy of Mexico City.
The ease of crossing at Río Suchiate and other crossings like Hidalgo, is perhaps part of the reason why the border has been described as “vertical.” In a perverse-seeming test, the borders themselves, as we saw, remain fairly easy to cross, but further north is where migration checkpoints and detention centers begin crop up with more frequency. Between Huixtla, north of Tapachula, and Arriaga, northwest of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capitol of Chiapas, there are at least 10 security checkpoints, along the most traditional migrant route along the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Since Hurricane Stan destroyed the train route between Tapachula and Arriaga in 2005, migrants on the Pacific Coast have primarily walked all the way to Arriaga, the southernmost leg of the train.
I saw one such checkpoint a week later, when traveling south of San Cristobál de las Casas in La Trinitaria, Chiapas, near the small city of Comitán, an imposing concrete behemoth and giant empty parking lot, equipped with officers who checked the van I was travelling in, and a military officer standing imposingly with a kill-grade weapon. The checkpoint was built in 2015, and has over 100 staff members, according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America.
The next day, we went to another part of the migrant trail – the central leg. Our long, windy morning drive brought us to Frontera Comalapa, a warm and colorful town near the central border crossing of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, to meet a priest, Samuel Luís (name changed), who runs a migrant shelter that had opened in the town in 2015. Since Plan Frontera Sur, more people have begun taking the central route north, which led the Catholic Church to open two new shelters in Central Chiapas, outside of the traditional shelter network along the Pacific trail, early this year.
Samuel took us to a comedor where local churchwomen made food for migrants and others who had settled temporarily while waiting to hear the results of their asylum applications – a process that can officially take up to 90 days on paper, but often takes longer in practice. However, the migrant shelters usually only allow people to stay up to 72 hours before they continue on their journey, due to extreme space shortage and overcrowding.
A few shelters have specialized their facilities for people awaiting the results of their asylum applications, but they are severely under-resourced. Some, like a family we met with in Comalapa, have to somehow scrounge together funds to rent an apartment in the same state they seek asylum while they wait, though they are not legally allowed to work during this process. Many still have been forced to wait out the process in detention centers such as Siglo XXI, located in Tapachula itself, with a capacity of 1000 people. The facility is often overcrowded, however.
The family we met in Comalapa, a young pregnant mom and dad and son, probably about five-years old, had faced horrific death threats in their home country of El Salvador. As the father told us his story, he broke down. He said the saddest part wasn’t that he and his family were forced to leave, but that his parents were still back home. He worried for their safety every day.
If a person wants to apply for refugee status somewhere where there are not UNHCR or COMAR (Mexican refugee agency) offices, they must apply directly with the INM, where the likelihood of receiving refugee status is much lower. There are just two UNHCR offices and COMAR offices in the state of Chiapas. As I listened to the father’s story, my heart sunk: they were to file their application with the INM office in Comalapa, because the only UNHCR and COMAR offices are located in Tapachula or in Tenosique, Tabasco, on the eastern jungle route. Salva, our guide from Fray Matías for the day, explained to us that he couldn’t take the family back to the UNHCR office in Tapachula, because if pulled over, we could be accused of human trafficking.
And even if the family was to apply directly with the UNHCR, there was no guarantee their application would be accepted. The UNHCR representative we met with said that thus far in 2016, 80% of asylum applications for Central Americans settling in Mexico have been accepted. But according to Fray Matías and ample documentation, many INM officers do not adequately inform people they apprehend of their rights to apply for asylum at all. And in prior years, the number of applications granted have been far lower.
The next day, back in Tapachula, we met with groups of asylum-seekers, including trans women facing horrific threats in their home countries, people who had decided to settle in Tapachula, and people who were in the city temporarily. One man said that he had initially travelled from Honduras to Mexico City, where he had worked under the table and applied for asylum status with the COMAR office in Mexico City. However, in Mexico City, he had been told that because he entered the country in Tapachula, he would need to apply in the state of Chiapas. In Chiapas, he was told that because he worked in Mexico City, he would need to apply there. Now he was stuck in limbo in Tapachula, not knowing whether his application was being processed, or if he was waiting for nothing at all, as his money dwindled away.
Several people who were awaiting the results of their asylum applications had also worked odd jobs under the table, everything from packing fruit to laying bricks to making scarves to ironing. They had faced abuses and xenophobia from their employers. One young pregnant girl from Honduras told us that she had worked 20 hour days in a fruit factory from 5 AM to midnight, six days a week, for 100 pesos (about $8USD) a day. Now she spent most of her time at a shelter in town, knitting scarves to sell. But many others at the shelter, she said, resorted to begging.
It was clear that xenophobia against Central Americans is rampant in Tapachula. At the shelter we visited, a coordinator explained to us that before she began working at the shelter, she had bought into the stereotypes she and her mestizo peers had been taught from a young age: that Central Americans are lesser and poorer than Mexicans. But, since working in the shelter, she had learned that they “weren’t all bad.” This state of mind was odd to comprehend, though quite reminiscent of the way many people in US feel about Mexicans.
By the end of the trip, it seemed clear to me that in addition to threats faced at home, asylum-seekers in Mexico face not only detection, detention, fear, and abuses, but also a perilous tightrope of red tape and discriminatory behavior that has led many to desist their asylum requests altogether. Regardless of the real versus perceived levels of militarization on Mexico’s Southern Border itself, the Mexican state is clearly reneging in its duty to provide people fleeing violence with opportunities for protection – as the US government quietly pushes its harmful policies along.