"We are looking for a way to get out of Chiapas because in Chiapas there is no way to live because people are treating you like animals, your rights are being violated. So if we are refugees we are fighting so that we can get out and looking for a way to live so that we can eat.” —Haitian migrant statement to the Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el Sureste Méxicano, August 2021.
Migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Cameroon, and other parts of Africa and Latin America are once again mobilizing in Tapachula to protest their treatment by Mexican immigration authorities. The latest demonstrations have been building for weeks, with the same grievances that have led to cycles of protests and multiple caravan attempts going back to 2020: The Mexican government refuses to let people leave Chiapas until their asylum claims have been processed by COMAR, and COMAR is backlogged with growing requests and thus months behind.
Nicole Narea of Vox reported last week that, “On Tuesday, a dozen migrants staged a protest in which they sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike. They are among the thousands staying in what has become known as an “open-air prison” in the city of Tapachula on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Migrants there have struggled to access food and shelter, and have reported being preyed on by government officials.”
This week there have been clashes between migrants and Mexico's National Guard, which has been mobilized to monitor the border and prevent the movement of migrants out of Chiapas. Edgar Clemente from the Associated Press reports that, “Dozens of migrants from Haiti, Cuba and African nations threw stones and sticks at Mexican National Guard troops and immigration agents Tuesday in the southern city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala.” The Mexican National Guard and INM agents have, in turn, repeatedly suppressed efforts by migrants to leave Chiapas in caravans over the past 6 months.
The situation in Tapachula has been deteriorating for some time, the context very much shaped by US border policies and pressure on the government of Mexico.
Back in March 2021, the Biden administration negotiated an agreement with the government of Mexico for expanded immigration enforcement within Mexico in order to keep unaccompanied children and other migrants away from the U.S./Mexico border. From Reuters:
The people familiar with the plan said Mexico would deploy security forces to cut the flow of migrants, the bulk of whom come from Central America's so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, whose economies were battered by the coronavirus pandemic and hurricanes last year.
Two of the people said the National Guard militarized police, which led efforts to bring down the number of illegal immigrants entering Mexico from Central America during an increase in 2019, would be at the forefront of the containment drive.
“The operations will be more frequent, more continuous and we will be taking part,” from next week, a member of the National Guard said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mexico followed this by announcing the temporary closure of its border with Guatemala and Belize to all but “essential” travel.
These moves may have been intended to target Central American migrants, but caught up in the same dragnet have been many others, including Haitians. Their circumstances have been made worse by changes in the law governing the issuance of visas—a change also made under pressure from the United States - this time Trump.
In 2019, Mexico changed rules covering oficios de salida, or “exit visas.” Prior to the summer of 2019, people arriving in southern Mexico could receive a visa for 15 to 30 days—allowing them time to apply for a change in status. Many traveled to the border with the United States instead.
Visas now require exit through the nearest (for most) southern border, leaving people with the option of applying for asylum, or other change of status within that time frame. If trying to reach the United States, they can now only cross Mexico in an unauthorized manner. With expanded enforcement, doing this carries great risks, so people apply for asylum in Chiapas—and then have to wait.
In October of 2020, there were several attempts at organizing caravans to protest these new visa rules and other restrictions on mobility for asylum seekers. The resulting caravans were violently repressed by the National Guard in a preview of what we are seeing now.
From October 2020 to today, these issues have not been resolved. The rules remain in place. People, in increasing numbers, remain trapped in Tapachula. Those who have tried to leave have been attacked by the National Guard and immigration authorities.
Organizations in Mexico have been advocating for the government to respect the right of free mobility, which is enshrined in Mexico's constitution. It is widely understood that the current restrictions are being maintained under pressure from the United States. Of course, it is also true that if freedom of movement is restored, more people would likely try to come to the United States. As the Biden administration seems unwilling to alter border policy in any significant way right now, if people get to the US border, most will be immediately expelled anyway.
Currently, there are tens of thousands of migrants, including many Haitians, trapped in Tapachula. The protests this week will continue until there is some relief offered to people - asylum decisions made, freedom of movement restored. Long-term, however, the change that must happen is at the United States border. Asylum must be restored here, and border enforcement overhauled so that people are treated humanely.