TAPACHULA, Mexico — The tired, the poor, and the huddled masses are taking their yearning to breathe free to new latitudes.
As the United States continues to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers under Title 42, an increasing number of weary travelers are opting to remain in southern Mexico instead. Maybe Mexico wasn’t their original destination when they left home, but sometimes Plan B is good enough in life.
“If I can get legally established here, I’ll stay. That’s an option I’ll take because I’m looking for a better life for my family,” a Honduran asylum-seeker, who fled home to escape death threats, told Real America with Jorge Ramos while waiting in line to request asylum in Tapachula. “I don’t have options. Poor people don’t have options in my country. Returning to Honduras is not an option. If God’s plans are for us to set up here, then those are God’s plans. I have to entrust God with my family because I’m not going to put them in any more risk.”
“All Cubans have the American Dream, but I don’t,” echoed a Cuban asylum-seeker, several spots ahead in line. “For now, I want to stay in Mexico.”
That’s an increasingly common sentiment. Alma Cruz, the Tapachula coordinator for Mexico’s Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR), says her office attends to 150- 600 new asylum-seekers every day in a line that forms in the small hours of the morning and queues around the building by 9 a.m.
“Over the last few months, we’ve seen that people are now viewing Mexico not only as a transit country, but also a destination,” Cruz says.
The data reflects that perception. In fact, COMAR continues to break its single-month record every month, handling 10,466 new cases in June alone. In the first half of 2021, Mexico has received a record-shattering 51,654 asylum requests from migrants coming from 83 countries around the world, mostly Honduras and Haiti. Mexico is now on pace to top 100,000 new asylum requests this year, more than the 96,751 credible fear interviews processed by the United States in 2018, the most recent year U.S. government data is available
To put it simply, Mexico and the United States could now be processing roughly the same number of new asylum requests on an annual basis — a shocking development in a country that was long considered to be only a migrant waiting room for the U.S.
End of the caravans
Asylum-seekers staying in Mexico marks a shift in migration patterns from a few years ago, when thousands of Central Americans were arriving in caravans. At that time Tapachula was a Mexican trailhead for caravan thru-traffic en route to the United States. But now that the caravans have apparently ended (at least for the moment), more migrants are deciding to stay in town rather than continue northbound along the perilous and expensive migrant road controlled by the Gulf Cartel and Jalisco New Generation.
“Asylum-seekers don’t come in caravans,” Cruz explains. “The migrant caravans just try to pass through the country. But I can tell you that we’re receiving a caravan’s worth of people every month. Our numbers oscillate between 3,000 and 4,000 people each month, the same number we saw in the caravans.”
COMAR is doing a remarkable job handling the increased demand. Working in conjunction with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Save the Children, COMAR runs a highly organized and orderly operation to process hundreds of initial screenings and credible fear interviews each day. The UN is currently picking up half the bill, as the operation scales up faster than the Mexican budget.
Mexico is currently able to absorb the influx in refugees, says COMAR’s General Coordinator Andrés Ramírez. The problem, he stressed, is that the burden is not being distributed evenly throughout the country, but falling disproportionately on Chiapas, the country’s poorest state. UNHCR is helping Mexico implement a refugee-resettlement program, which invites those granted refugee status to move to other parts of the country where jobs are more plentiful. But under Mexican law, asylum-seekers requesting refugee status must remain in the state where they’re being processed — and that can take anywhere from three to six months.
“Currently around 70% of all asylum-seekers are arriving in Tapachula,” Ramírez says. “That means that an enormous amount of people are arriving in Chiapas, requesting asylum in Chiapas, and have to remain in Chiapas. So the situation could continue to get more and more complicated and generate tensions among the local population because, logically, they will see all these asylum-seekers as competition for public services and jobs.”
With resources stretched thin, there’s no indication that current trends in migration will change anytime soon. On the contrary, the list of countries producing the lion’s share of asylum requests in Mexico are among the most troubled in the hemisphere — Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, to name a few on the top 10 origin list.
Says Ramírez, “If we’re alarmed now about 100,000 asylum requests, that’ll be nothing in 10 years. It could be much higher. That’s exactly why I think it’s important to focus on attacking the root causes of migration. And we have to start immediately.”