Tens of thousands of Haitian migrants are trapped in southern Mexico

TAPACHULA, Mexico —

Psyching themselves up for a 1,000-mile journey, hundreds of migrants gathered near the central plaza of this southern Mexican city and broke into a chant: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Then they started walking.

Less than 24 hours later, Mexican national guard troops and immigration agents descended on a municipal basketball court where many of the migrants — exhausted and drenched from a tropical storm — had stopped to sleep.

They were loaded onto buses and driven 25 miles back to Tapachula, one of the last places on Earth they wanted to be.

This sweltering city near the Guatemalan border has become a vast open-air detention camp, a dead end for as many as 50,000 migrants who scramble daily to pay for food and shelter as they mull new strategies to break out and get to the United States.

Tapachula has long been a way station for Central Americans traveling north. Now, however, a large number of migrants who have stayed here are from Haiti .

Their presence here is so ubiquitous that the city can seem like a slice of the Caribbean. Haitians queue up at cellphone shops, banks, and aid agencies. They congregate in the central square. To serve them, there are many street markets, cafes, and hair salons. Storefronts blare Haitian music.

The Haitians here are not fleeing in the aftermath of last month’s earthquake or the July assassination of the country’s president.

Rather they are among the 250,000 Haitians who left their homeland after the devastating 2010 earthquake there and settled in Chile or Brazil. These two countries suffered severe economic declines due to the pandemic. This prompted the current exodus.

The journey to Mexico is epic, but the goal is to reach the United States — where the Biden administration is already trying to figure out what to do about an encampment of thousands of migrants, mostly Haitians, outside of Del Rio, Texas.

A migrant cradles an exhausted-looking child

Many of the Haitian and Central American migrants who headed north from Tapachula, Mexico, suffered from exhaustion and dehydration.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

The bottleneck in Tapachula is a result of U.S. pressure on Mexico to keep migrants from reaching the United States.

When Donald Trump was president, he publicly threatened to destroy Mexico’s economy with tariffs if the country did not move to stop the northward flow of migrants. Mexico complied. Experts say that President Biden did not use public threats but his approach was similar.

“Even though the Biden administration may be doing it more quietly, they are certainly putting as much pressure on Mexico as was put on Mexico in the last administration,” said Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “They are still relying on Mexico to prevent people from getting to the U.S.-Mexico border.”

What Mexico gets in return for its cooperation is not entirely clear. The terms of the agreement may increase U.S. requests for assistance on binational issues such as trade and crime, and reduce White House criticisms of Mexican policies.

“This puts Mexico in a much stronger position to get concessions from the United States,” said Cris Ramon, an immigration consultant in Washington. “To what extent is the United States treating Mexico with kid gloves on issues such as corruption and democratic backsliding, in exchange for Mexico serving as an interdiction state of migrants?”

In halting northbound migrants, Ramon noted, Mexico plays a role akin to what Turkey once performed for the European Union, holding back migrants coming from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

A woman and children walk on the side of a road.

Migrant families walk from southern Mexico toward the U.S.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

In the last decade or so, Mexico has emerged as a signature transit country for migrants from across the globe, and Tapachula, which usually has a population of about 350,000, has become a polyglot choke point. People from Africa, South America, Asia, and the Caribbean are common migrants who pass through.

While it was common for migrants to get delayed here while awaiting Mexican transit documents, they typically managed to continue their journeys north.

These days Tapachula is a trap. The roads to the north are blocked by waves of Mexican national guard troops in riot gear and backed up by immigration agents.

Escape is close to impossible for those who can’t afford coyotes, or smugglers, who charge as much as $10,000 a person to reach the U.S. Border.

Migrants stuck here have little chance of finding jobs. Many lack the legal authorization to work. The Chiapas state which includes Tapachula is one of Mexico’s poorest areas.

“There is no life for us in Tapachula,” said Jean Edelince, 36, a native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who has been in Tapachula for four months with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. “There is no work, no money, no way to survive.”

He spoke inside a rundown house crammed with some 60 Haitians — men, women and children. The majority of Haitians sleep on mattresses. One bathroom is available, but there is no running water or air conditioning. Tenants pool the little cash they have to pay rent of about $3,000 a month. To reach Tapachula, Haitians must cross international borders for months, traversing jungles, mountains, deserts, and dodge thieves, corrupt cops, and bribe-seeking officials.

People rest in a green leafy area.

A large number of Haitians joined recent caravans through southern Mexico. Some migrants fled into the forest after the Mexican national guard broke up the group of travelers and took many.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

Edelince and his family started in Chile — where he lived for four years and worked at a plastics factory — and made their way north through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, before arriving in Mexico.

During a six-day walk through the notorious Darien Gap — a hazardous stretch of rainforest that connects Colombia and Panama — Edelince said he saw the bodies of more than a dozen migrants who didn’t make it.

Among the Haitians seeking medical assistance on a recent morning at a mobile clinic outside the refugee office in Tapachula was Youseline Toussaint, 25, whose left arm was in a cast.

She claimed that she had broken her left arm in a motor vehicle accident while driving north through Guatemala weeks before. Her 7-month old daughter was also killed.

The exodus is influenced by the economic situation in South America and U.S. immigration policies. The U.S. Border Patrol can not send Haitians back to Mexico, unlike Central Americans.

If they are able to slip into the United States, especially if they are accompanied by young children, they have a good chance of getting provisional residency while their cases drag on at U.S. Immigration Court.

Each day, hundreds of Haitians line up daily outside the headquarters of Mexico’s refugee agency to apply for refugee status. Most don’t qualify. The Haitians “arrived like an avalanche of so many people, and are making it very complicated,” stated Andres Ramirez Silvi, head of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance. This agency handles asylum claims. “This situation has put us on the verge of collapse.”

Mexican authorities regularly deport Central Americans back to their homelands, or deposit them at the Guatemalan border, a practice denounced by human rights activists. In the meantime, U.S. authorities have flown Central Americans held in the United States to Tapachula.

Haitians pose a greater challenge. Mexico doesn’t currently deport Haitians but has insufficient detention space. This is a growing problem as both Colombian and Panama report soaring numbers heading north.

“Haitians cannot be sent back to a completely devastated country,” Ramirez Silva, the Mexican refugee chief, said in an interview. “There should be some kind of migratory alternative, but that is not happening.”

Uniformed people with helmets and shields walk in a group.

Mexican national guard forces deploy to stop a U.S.-bound caravan of migrants. The force searched the outskirts Huixtla.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

In recent weeks, exasperated migrants have revived “caravans,” trekking north together in large groups. Wide condemnation has been expressed for the scenes of national guard troops beating migrants who were being taken in caravans.

A human manhunt,” Tapachula Roman Catholic Bishop Jaime Calderon Calderon described the operation during Mass at local churches last week.

As people fled the jungle in search of safety, their families were separated and their children lost in the chaos.

“This is a savage, cruel and lamentable operation,” said Father Heyman Vazquez Medina, a Catholic priest in the town of Huixtla, north of Tapachula. “We are all aware that this is the result of pressure from the United States…. Mexico has always done the dirty work of the United States.”

In August, Mexico’s defense minister declared that the “principal objective” of the military at the country’s southern border was to “stop all migration.” But the leftist government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has denied systematic abuse. The president stated that migrants are being held in the south to avoid them being exposed to criminal gangs at Mexico’s northern border.

A national guard member watches over people in line along a brick wall.

In Tapachula, Haitians seeking to travel to the U.S. line up outside the Mexican refugee agency to seek asylum status. Many do not qualify and the wait can drag on for months. The long line is managed by a member of the national guard.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

“The human rights of immigrants have not been violated,” Lopez Obrador recently told reporters. “There will be no repression in our government.”

However, many pointed out the incongruity of Mexico touting recent deliveries of aid to Haiti — and receiving plaudits for taking in refugees from Afghanistan — as it was cracking down on migrants in the south.

“Our government sends Navy ships with aid to Haiti but also sends [immigration agents] and the National Guard to impede, sometimes with beatings, Haitians and others from leaving Tapachula en route to the north,” tweeted the Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer. “The pressure from Washington must be strong to force this contradiction on Mexico.”

Special correspondents Maria de Jesus Peters and Liliana Nieto del Rio in Tapachula and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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