By Lizbeth Diaz
A bid by Mexico to contain thousands of migrants on its southern border with Guatemala has created a major humanitarian headache for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and failed to prevent many from reaching the U.S. border en masse.
Desperate for work, fleeing poverty or violence, the Central Americans, Haitians and South Americans stuck in limbo in the southern city of Tapachula have staged protests and launched repeated attempts to break out in migrant caravans.
This month, some of them slipped past Mexican officials to join more than 10,000 migrants who crossed into Del Rio, Texas to form a sprawling new camp, reviving U.S. concerns about a huge spike in illegal immigration.
Record numbers of migrants have passed through Mexico this year, driven by economic downturns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and drawn by the hope of more welcoming immigration policies under U.S. President Joe Biden.
For the thousands still stranded near the Guatemalan border in the city of Tapachula, many of them subsisting in squalid or cramped conditions, desperation is setting in as they wait for travel papers, or slowly run out of money.
“This is a prison,” complained Jairo Gonzalez, 36, a Nicaraguan construction worker stuck in Tapachula. “There’s nothing you can do if you don’t have money to feed yourself.”
Gonzalez said he reached Mexico City by bus over a month ago after entering the country illegally in the hope of finding a job either in the United States or Mexico.
But Mexican officials detained him and sent him to Tapachula, he said. Gonzalez said he urged them to send him home, but was informed he would not be deported. Now he says he does not have the money to go back.
The government’s National Migration Institute declined to comment on the containment of migrants in Tapachula. The foreign ministry did not reply to requests for comment.
Some of the migrants stuck in Tapachula entered Mexico illegally while others are seeking asylum.
International watchdog Human Rights Watch visited the area in August and reported that although asylum seekers were technically permitted to travel anywhere in Tapachula’s home state of Chiapas until their cases are resolved, immigration checkpoints prevented them leaving the city.
Mexican security officials were caught on video this month beating migrants trying to move out of Tapachula, sparking criticism from the U.N. human rights and refugee offices, and even Lopez Obrador himself.
Two immigration officers were suspended.
Washington has pressed Mexico to keep migrants in check as the number stopped trying to cross the U.S. border has more than doubled this year, with over 200,000 apprehended some months.
Mexico’s government says its containment measures are aimed at enforcing its own laws and protecting migrant rights.
Mexican officials argue much of the chaos stems from the dismantling of asylum protections under former U.S. President Donald Trump, and during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 emergency measures have led to summary expulsions of undocumented immigrants at the U.S. border into Mexico, which in turn encouraged them to attempt repeat crossings, they say.
Biden’s pledges to strengthen protections for migrants in the United States, and to improve the humanitarian lot of asylum-seekers provided further incentives for people to try their luck, they argue.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the White House did not reply to requests for comment. The State Department declined to comment.