Migrants queuing in May 2021 for dinner at the Jesús El Buen Pastor shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, where they are forced to wait for months before being allowed to proceed northwards. (Jordan Stern/TNH)
When migrants and asylum seekers reach Mexico, they have to announce themselves to authorities or risk being detained or deported. The migrant population once again becomes visible in large numbers, especially in small border towns in some of the country’s poorest states.
Arrival here may mean waiting for months for documentation – both for refugee status within Mexico and permissionto head to the US border – before being allowed to continue northward. In the interim, employment opportunities are virtually nil.
Tapachula, where many migrants and asylum seekers find themselves legally stranded, is blisteringly hot. During the day, thousands wait endlessly in the shade, clutching identical translucent plastic envelopes stuffed with application papers or wearing their passports around their necks. Most possessions can be replaced, but the immigration papers contained in those envelopes are priceless and never leave their side.
None of the new arrivals want to be in Tapachula, but the town has become the de facto holding ground for migrants from Central America and beyond. Those attempting to leave the region while their cases are being reviewed may end up at Siglo XXI, Latin America’s biggest migrant detention centre, notorious for overcrowding and allegations of detainee abuse.
In 2021, Mexico detained over a quarter of a million migrants, the majority in Tapachula. According to the law, migration cases for detained foreigners should be resolved in 15 working days, but that provision was extended to 90 due to the backlog, and some migrants report waiting even longer.
As a result, many give up plans to continue north and decide to apply for asylum in Mexico. Asylum claims in Mexico reached an all-time high in 2021 of over 130,000. Detentions and deportations of migrants also skyrocketed, according to government statistics.
Mexico’s southern border states of Chiapas and Tabasco have been unable to cope with the soaring number of asylum applicants, most of whom stay in the border cities, explained Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “COMAR (the Mexican migration service) doesn’t have the resources or the personnel to handle this,” Isacson said. “They are overwhelmed.”
UNHCR has programmesdesigned to help those who decide to stay in Mexico regularise their migration status, find work, and obtain housing, but it’s a process that takes time, and the agency’s workers in southern Mexico are unable to assist everyone.
Spindler said the organisation had requested more resources from both the US and the UN to deal with the increased demandin the region – not only to assist the increased numbers of migrants heading northwards, but also deportees sent back by the US.
After being robbed in Costa Rica and narrowly escaping detention in Nicaragua – he only avoided it by bribing a border guard – Will eventually managed to cross into Mexico from Guatemala, where he made contact once again.
Although Will did manage to avoid Siglo XXI – a slice of good fortune other migrants in touch with The New Humanitarian did not share – he was still left languishing for weeks, awaiting Mexico’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, like virtually all his fellow travellers.
“I am opting to apply for the humanitarian visa, but they told me that I cannot leave the state with the humanitarian visa,” Will messaged from Palenque, in northern Chiapas. “It doesn’t matter. If they give it to me, I will take off and go from here to there.”
While cases are reviewed, migrants are prohibited from leaving the department in which they filed their claim.
Ongoing protests by migrants in southern Mexico demanding the right to work and continue north have further strained difficult relations with local residents, leading to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.
Locals often complain about increasing crime rates, being “overrun” by migrants, and how Tapachula has changed for the worse.
Graver risks from drug and criminal gangs are also ever-present.
“There is no work here,” Will said from Palenque. “Just gangs, organised crime, hunger, and xenophobia.”
One of Will’s travel companions was kidnapped shortly after his arrival in Mexico. For three days, he heard nothing and assumed he had been killed. Will then learned that the kidnappers had in fact released his companion after securing money from the man’s relative in the United States.