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MEXICO CITY – Mario Rodríguez, 20, is sorting donations at the Mexico City migrant shelter where he lives: toothpaste, pens and pencils, t-shirts. Friendly but soft-spoken, he wears a flat-brim cap, t-shirt and sweatpants.
Rodríguez arrived in the city just a week ago, after fleeing violence in his hometown in the Honduran state of Olancho.
A few months ago, a factory co-worker became angry because Rodríguez had access to the company truck. The man then confronted Rodríguez with a pistol, saying, “Today is the day I’m going to kill you.”
Eventually the aggressor backed down, but Rodríguez did not want to return to work. He feared reporting the incident to the police, and worried the man belonged to a gang. Soon after, Rodríguez joined a few acquaintances in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and they headed north towards Mexico.
Now, Rodríguez is one of a dozen Central American youth currently living at a protection center for adolescent migrants ( Ceproiac). He does not plan to continue north. Instead, he is exploring legal options to stay in Mexico.
Mexico has long been a country of transit for Central American migrants seeking to reach the United States; more than 200,000 are estimated to pass through each year. But in recent years, as the journey through Mexico to the U.S. border has become more costly and dangerous, and as the situation in Central America has worsened, Mexico has also become a destination.
“I know it isn’t safe to go north to cross the border,” Rodríguez explained, while resting at the shelter on his day off from a painting job downtown. “Meanwhile I have the option to stay here and get papers.”
Ceproiac opened in Fall 2015, in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, and relocated to Mexico City in July of this year. It serves Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans in their teens or early 20s who are seeking asylum or humanitarian protection in Mexico.
Asylum cases soar
Comar, the Mexican Commission in Support of Refugees, reported that in the first nine months of 2016, 4,032 Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans opened asylum cases in Mexico, more than the total number of applicants from 2010 to 2014. While less than a third win their cases, that average has been creeping upward.
The number of unaccompanied minors from Central America seeking refugee status in Mexico is also soaring, with 175 petitions in 2016 through the end of September, compared to 55 in all of 2013 – a three-fold increase.
Jorge Ríos, a lawyer at Sin Fronteras (Without Borders), a Mexico City-based non-profit that supports asylum and refugee seekers, attributes the increase to fear of notorious Central American gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and the 18th St, Barrio 18), better known as maras, as well as hardened immigration enforcement in Mexico.
“We used to mostly see men traveling alone through Mexico, but now it’s whole families who come. The gangs used to just threaten and target the head of household, but they’re increasingly targeting children,” he said.
Traveling north, Rodriguez was robbed once in Guatemala and twice in Chiapas. He briefly rode the famous freight train, known as the ' Bestia,' and walked along its tracks for five days, before making it to Veracruz and then Mexico City.
Harsher border enforcement
During the 2014 “border crisis,” when unprecedented numbers of women and children arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border, Washington pressured Mexico to increase immigration enforcement. President Enrique Peña Nieto announced “The Southern Border Plan” in June 2014, which ramped up immigration detentions and deportations throughout Mexico to stem the flow of Central Americans reaching the U.S. border.
The border plan has worked.
Detentions are up in Mexico, and arrivals of women and children on the U.S. border are down. Apprehensions of Central American migrants in Mexico jumped 71 percent between July 2014 and June 2015 over the same period in the previous year.
However, the plan has pushed migrants on to more clandestine routes, and in turn coyotes have upped their rates, charging more than $7,000 to cross Mexico from the border with Guatemala.
In addition to multiple robberies, Rodríguez saw first-hand how immigration authorities are clamping down across southern Mexico. In Chiapas, immigration agents surprised him and his traveling companions along the tracks of the Bestia.
“One of them was so close to catching me, he grabbed my backpack. But I managed to outrun him,” he said.
He had two more close-calls with immigration agents before reaching Veracruz, where the women of the “Las Patronas” organization, known for feeding migrants who pass through the town of the same name, recommended he head to Ceproiac in Mexico City.
A safe haven
Many Central Americans are not aware that they have the right to seek asylum until migrant shelter staff or volunteers inform them. While immigration authorities are legally obligated to inform migrants of their rights when they are detained, agents often neglect to inform detainees, or actively discourage them from applying for asylum.
Ceproiac is a sister organization of the Brothers in the Journey shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, which Priest Alejandro Solalinde founded in 2007. After the inception of the Southern Border Plan, teenagers and young adults who faced persecution by the maras in their home countries were staying in Ixtepec for months at a time. Unable to continue north due to immigration raids on La Bestia, more tried to regularize their immigration status in Mexico.
Ceproiac was founded to meet this need, and opened its doors in Oaxaca’s capital in September 2015, under the direction of Carlos Moriano, a Spanish phycologist.
Between September 2015 and July 2016, six Ceproiac residents received refugee status. Three more currently have their cases under revision. Seven others received humanitarian visas, which grant them residency in Mexico for one year and are subject to renewal. Humanitarian visas are available to migrants who may not qualify for asylum, but were victims of or witnesses to crimes in Mexico.
“These youths are fleeing their countries, in some cases literally under fire,” Moriano said in an interview with Univision in Oaxaca. “It’s a miracle some of them made it out.”
He explained that many teenage boys are forced to join the maras but reach a breaking point and decide to escape. “For some of them, it was the moment a gang leader ordered them to kill someone,” Moriano said.
In March, Univision interviewed youth staying at the shelter in Oaxaca, including a 17-year-old who asked not to be identified by name due to the threats against him in El Salvador.
Just two weeks earlier his brother had been murdered in Sonsonate, El Salvador. Before that, it was a cousin who had been killed.
“They (MS 13 members) had given me a certain number of days before they’d kill me,” he said. “I left to stay alive, to escape the gangs. It wasn’t my idea to go to the United States.”
He was waiting for the outcome of his asylum application.
“I can’t go back, the gangs and the police dominate El Salvador. The police even work with the gangs,” he said.
A “protection crisis”
The Washington Office on Latin America reports that the Southern Border Plan has increased immigration enforcement in Mexico, without increasing the capacity to screen whether detained migrants face danger at home if they are deported. Facing increasing violence, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has called for urgent action and said Central Americans face a “ protection crisis.”
The Attorney General’s Office for the Protection of Children and Adolescents is charged with ensuring unaccompanied minors are not held in immigration detention, though Ríos says enforcement is lax.
“Legally it’s very difficult for unaccompanied minors to regularize their immigration status without signatures and paperwork from their parents. So many prefer to be deported, and try to cross again without getting detained.”
The difficulty in applying for asylum traces back to Mexico's overburdened refugee commission, Comar. In the first nine months of 2016, 5,944 people from around the world opened asylum cases in Mexico, with 3,197 completing the application process. Comar has roughly 40 employees to process these applicants.
Ríos said the overload creates systematic problems and ill-informed asylum resolutions. For example, while Comar is required by law to interview asylum seekers in person, many interviews are carried out over the phone.
Asylum applicants must open their case within 30 days of entering Mexican territory. Comar has 45 business days to resolve each case and two weeks to notify the applicant, which means the process can drag out to nine to eleven weeks.
At the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York on September 19, Enrique Peña Nieto committed to increase Comar personnel by 80 percent.
Comar, a subsidiary of the Interior Secretary, declined an interview request for this story.
Many youth at the Mexico City shelter have opted to apply for a humanitarian visa, instead of asylum. The process is faster, and they have a higher rate of success. Since 2010, only about 28 percent of close to 13,000 Central American applicants have been granted refugee status. However, the humanitarian visa only lasts a year before it must be renewed.
“There are applicants who don’t have money to buy food while they wait [for asylum]. People have told us they walk to the Comar office because they don’t have money for metro fare,” said Ríos.
About 45% of Central Americans who opened cases in 2016 abandoned them, often due to limited economic resources to support themselves during the process, or lack of legal advising.
The struggle to integrate
Even Central Americans who receive asylum face complex problems in making a home for themselves in Mexico. This is especially true for the young people at Ceproiac, many of whom fled alone to Mexico and must support family members back home.
Central Americans, even if they have residency, are often paid less than Mexicans, and many report difficulties in renting apartments and accessing governmental services.
Others are victims of crimes in Mexico. A Honduran youth who received asylum while living at the shelter in Oaxaca was robbed by police officers in his working-class neighborhood in Mexico City. It was a lengthy and costly process to have his immigration I.D. card replaced.
Some who receive humanitarian visas or refugee status later decide to try and cross into the U.S. because they cannot gain a foothold in Mexico, or to seek out family.
Rodriguez said he is undecided whether to pursue asylum or a humanitarian visa. With the painting job he secured downtown, he will be able to support himself while he waits out the legal process.
“In general Mexicans have treated me well, and I’m planning to stay,” he said.