TAPACHULA, Mexico — Scared by an uptick in deportations by the U.S., thousands of Haitian migrants packed into the southern Mexican border town of Tapachula are opting to stay put rather than continue their journey north to the United States.
Many of the migrants have no clear timetable for leaving Tapachula, a major stop on the route for migrants moving through Central America and Mexico on their way to the U.S., and their presence is pushing state and private aid organizations to the brink and inflaming tensions with local residents.
The U.S. stepped up deporting Haitians home on flights after thousands arrived at the Texas border, seemingly overnight, in mid-September. Dozens of migrants in Tapachula told VICE World News that now was not the time to continue moving north, using the same refrain: “Lots of deportations.”
“Things are complicated here because there are too many people,” said Bien-Aimé Benly, 34, a Haitian migrant who arrived in Tapachula in late September from Chile.
But the policy is threatening to overwhelm Mexico’s migration system, which has already been inundated by a record number of asylum applications this year.
“It’s hell here. How can a person spend months here without working? How are you supposed to live?” he said.
In order to remain in Mexico legally, the migrants ask for asylum, even if their ultimate destination is the United States.
“Of all the asylum claims lodged in Mexico, about 70 percent are presented in southern Mexico, and of those, the vast majority are in Tapachula,” said Sibylla Brodzinsky, a regional communications officer for the UN Refugee Agency.
“The capacity of Mexican authorities to receive, register, and process these claims has been overstretched. It is dealing with really unprecedented numbers,” she added.
Through September, more than 90,000 people have requested asylum in Mexico. That amounts to almost 30 percent more than all of 2019, the previous record-high. The influx of applicants has slowed the asylum process so much that what used to take a couple months now takes half a year or more.
Asylum seekers are required to wait out the process in the state where they apply, so at any given time there could be tens of thousands of migrants in Tapachula, which has a population of about 350,000.
Roughly a third of all asylum applicants in Mexico this year are Haitian or the children of Haitians born abroad, surpassed only slightly by Hondurans. But the share of Haitians applying has risen steadily throughout the year, and it surpassed Hondurans for the first time in July.
Asylum applications from Haitians had the lowest approval rate of all nationalities in Mexico this year. Just 32 percent of applications have been approved by the Mexican government, compared to 84 percent of applications from Hondurans and 97 percent of those from Venezuelans, for example.
On the streets of Tapachula, Black Haitians stand out.
Travelling from South American countries such as Brazil and Chile, where many had worked for years until the coronavirus pandemic eliminated their jobs, thousands of Haitian migrants arrived in Tapachula by early September. “You couldn’t reach the park because there were so many Haitian migrants,” said Luis Villagrán, director of the Center for Human Dignification, a migrant aid organization in the city.
Tension with local residents nearly boiled over. “Groups were formed on social media to say that the invaders had to be run out, that they were robbing us of the city center, because indeed the city center was overrun,” said Villagrán, who suggested that Haitian migrants were singled out in particular because of the color of their skin and their high visibility.
Then, in mid-September, over the course of about a week, thousands of Haitian migrants disappeared from the streets of Tapachula, many of them resurfacing at the migrant camp along the U.S. border near Del Rio, Texas, that captured international headlines last month.
How thousands of people were able to travel roughly 1,500 miles through Mexico over a few days without being stopped at any one of the numerous checkpoints along the way has been the source of much speculation.
“It did not happen without some sort of organization, and that is what needs to be looked into, because there is no explanation so far,” said Dr. Tonatiuh Guillén, the former head of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Whether the Haitians left on buses or in a steady flow of small groups, it appears likely that the Mexican authorities were aware of their movement and turned a blind eye.
The sudden departure of thousands helped alleviate the tension brewing in the city. “It depressurized Tapachula,” said Villagán.
But only temporarily.
On average, several hundred migrants arrive each day in Tapachula. In the weeks since thousands of Haitian migrants left the city, they’ve largely been replaced by newcomers who appear destined to stay for the long haul. Around 20,000 more are estimated to be on their way.
There seem to be two types of migrants in Tapachula: those who are on their own and struggling, and those who are receiving financial support from relatives in the U.S. The latter wear sturdy shoes with thick soles. They buy beers and food at the restaurants and support a vibrant Haitian market, which sells staples like vegetables and luxuries like hair extensions, that has sprouted up on a city block. They form long lines outside the stores that offer money-transfer services.
Some business owners complained that the presence of migrants drives customers away while others cited the obvious economic activity they generate as a boon for Tapachula, which is in one of Mexico’s poorest states, Chiapas.
The deportation of over 7,000 migrants from the camp in Texas back to Haiti caught the attention of migrants all the way from Mexico to South America. Many Haitians have opted to seek asylum in Mexico, treating it as a sort of hall pass that will allow them safe passage to the U.S. border, or short of that goal, to live and work in Mexico.
“Many people arriving in Mexico are accessing the asylum system for lack of any alternative for a legal stay in Mexico when they may not necessarily have international protection needs,” said Brodzinsky.
The situation has as much to do with U.S. policy as it does with Mexico’s. In June 2019, Mexico made an agreement to deploy its National Guard to stem the flow of migrants through the country, explained Guillén. As a result, more are using legal avenues to transit the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden generated hope for a different approach, he said, but so far in terms of migration policies there have been “more traits of continuity than change.”
In the case of most of the Haitians, who are primarily coming from Brazil or Chile where they emigrated to in the years following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, they have to prove that they qualify for refugee protections based on their situations in those countries, not their homeland, explained Brodzinsky.
Benly told VICE World News that he left Chile to escape violent, racist attacks. “I had work and was able to make a living, but the danger became just like in my country,” he said.
The majority, however, say they left South America because work dried up during the pandemic and permits to stay became harder to obtain. Many were also drawn to the U.S. by a misunderstanding of an announcement in May by the Biden administration that extended protection from deportation by 18 months for Haitians already in the country.
Seated outside a shelter in Tapachula, Chery Parissa, 28, said he heard about the announcement over a month after the murder of the Haitian president on July 7. He believed the extension was a window of opportunity for Haitians to enter the U.S.
Parissa arrived with his wife and 4-year-old son in Tapachula on September 27. He told VICE World News that he’d fled threats from gangs in Haiti to Chile in 2013.
Given what happened at the U.S. border last month, he’s hoping to obtain asylum in Mexico so that he can work wherever he might find a job. Anything would be better than getting deported back to Haiti.
“Just imagine, they killed the president with all his security,” he said. “Imagine if you have nothing.”