Nowhere To Go: the Dangerous Limbo that Mexico has Become for Central American Migrants

The Central American immigrant population continues to burgeon to new levels, as education, economic opportunity, and safety concurrently decline—specifically in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The majority of these people make the dangerous trek up north, through Mexico and arduous conditions, to seek asylum in the United States. However, given current stringent immigration and asylum policies in the U.S., the number of Central Americans finding themselves stuck in a limbo in Mexico is on the rise. Just in 2019 alone, the UN Refugee Agency reported that 593,507 asylum-seekers and migrants had reached the southern U.S. border. Upon arrival, however, more and more asylum-seekers and refugees are turned away and denied access, despite international law protocols that enforce the humanitarian right to seek asylum. If in 2014 the U.S. asylum grant rate was 3.7 percent—a dismally low rate that only helped a select few—you can imagine what it’s devolved into today with President Trump’s administration. They have effectively put in place a wall in writing, creating new policies that make it legal to block asylum-seekers from having their applications processed and accepted.

Due to the increased migration and as part of the latest intolerant policies trying to stem the flow of immigrants into the U.S., a procedure called “Migrant Protection Protocols” was implemented earlier this year—a program that is also known as “Remain in Mexico”. As asylum seekers await their hearings (a process that could take years), are released from detainment, or otherwise simply stuck at ports of entry, the protocol sends them back to Mexico, to extremely uncertain and turbulent circumstances, to either head back to their home countries, or take their chances in Mexico to wait for a hearing. The choice is almost impossible—with both options resulting in extreme risk of life. Returning to a country overrun by violence, corruption, and poverty is in effect a death sentence, especially since so many asylum-seekers left to escape those impossible circumstances.

         The second alternative isn’t as simple as it sounds. In many aspects, staying in Mexico means once again facing the same dangers that served as key motivators to flee—potentially to a lesser degree, but Mexico by no means qualifies as a safe country. Violence, insecurity, and a corrupt infrastructure leave these vulnerable groups of people open to danger, exploitation, and abuse. Couple that with the rising tide of xenophobia and racism within Mexican society, and suddenly staying in Mexico isn’t as appealing or safe as the U.S. government makes it out to be. With nationalism on the rise on a seemingly global scale, and divisions of “us” versus “them” burgeoning from the political tensions that worsen each day, it’s easy to see where this xenophobic trend has originated from. The same racist and hate-fueled rhetoric that has defined Mexico-U.S. relations in previous years is now being amplified towards Mexican-Central American relations. It’s a relationship that stems from classism, aporophobia—the fear and disgust of poverty—and ignorance, and one with heavy consequences.

With the U.S. government pressuring and bullying Mexico to stop the influx of immigrants, border enforcement and deportations in Mexico have peaked. Detention of immigrants went up seventy-one percent in 2014 alone, while 150,000 immigrants were deported in 2015. These numbers are only expected to rise, as Mexico’s response to Trump’s latest tariff threats, has been to deploy a guard force of 6,500 soldiers to the Guatemalan border and 15,000 to the northern border in efforts to stem the flow—a militaristic strategy that Mexico has never employed before in regards to migrants. Furthermore, increased raids on public transportation, checkpoints on highways, and recent regulations requiring valid papers to purchase even bus tickets, are all new methods Mexican officials and travel agencies are employing to weed out migrants and make it harder for them to travel through Mexico.   

Despite this latest intensification of border enforcement, there are still hundreds of thousands of migrants stuck in Mexico—particularly in the north—unable to work, separated from their families, and essentially at the mercy of the communities that have taken them in. Refugee centers and camps have burgeoned in various cities such as Tapachula, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juarez, to aid these migrants but the current governmental funds Mexico allocates to refugees is spread thin. The director of the Mexican Commission to Aid Refugees (locally known as COMAR), Andres Ramirez Silva, has in fact denounced the budget as incapable of “solving this problem, and in no way sufficient”. Given the deteriorating conditions of many of these centers where many are subject to lack of food, extreme heat, pest infestations, and ultimately unhygienic living situations, Mexico has received sharp criticism of condemning migrants to inhumane lifestyles.  

Survival outside the migrant shelters and detention centers isn’t much more promising or safe either. Many migrants face exploitation, human trafficking, and the daily violence of an unstable country. Without the correct papers or government granted refugee status, migrants cannot find legal employment within Mexico, leaving them to fend for themselves—an act that more often than not will lead them to the black market. Through this sector, minors and women are particularly at risk for exploitation—whether it be labor-related or sexual. In the Mexican human trafficking industry, it is estimated that 85 percent of the victims are female and almost a third are underage. Refugees, given their lack of resources and vulnerability, are put at higher risk for such exploitation and abuse. Even throughout the journey of traveling through Mexico, it is estimated that six out of ten migrant women and girls are raped.

These groups of migrants have faced some of the worst odds—with no resources or means to survive them—only to have their asylum applications denied, their rights stripped away, and end up in a middle country that is neither home nor properly equipped to aid them. It is the culmination of all these factors that makes the Central American migration crisis a humanitarian one.