MEXICO CITY – Like a lot of Mexicans, Julia Reyes is following news reports of the migrant caravan with mixed emotions. “It’s so sad what they’re going through,” the middle-aged housekeeper said. But she’s also wary of the migrants and skeptical of their intentions. “Are they coming for work, or are they coming to cause problems?”
The thousands of mostly Honduran migrants traveling in the caravan has tested the will of Mexican politicians and citizens to receive and settle Central American migrants — the very thing Mexico has sought for millions of its own citizens who have gone to the U.S. in search of a better life. It has also forced Mexico to reckon with its shifting role: from a country that for decades has sent migrants abroad, to one being asked to open its doors and take them in.
This week, both the U.S. and Mexico stepped up their efforts to stop the Central American migrants. The U.S. now plans to send at least 5,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter the caravan — an increase from Thursday when it planned to deploy 800 troops. And on the Guatemala-Mexico border, a new group of migrants seeking to cross into Mexico clashed on Sunday with Guatemalan police and Mexican officers. A 26-year-old Honduran man died when a rubber bullet struck him in the head.
“What we have seen in the past decade has been [Mexico’s] policy of promoting the rights of their own citizens abroad, which is very important, but not seeing that really reflected in how migrants are treated in Mexico,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Washington Institute of Latin America’s Mexico program.
Read: Migrants say coming to the U.S. isn't their goal: "They see us as animals"
On one hand, hundreds of Mexicans have lined the highways to give food, water and even coins to the Central American migrants making their way to the U.S. But the caravan has also exposed the threadbare nature of Mexico’s asylum system and the racist attitudes many Mexicans hold toward Central Americans — views that can sound shockingly similar to Trump’s depictions of Mexicans.
“We are all terrified of what could happen, because all kinds of people are coming through,” said Francisca Torres, 55, a stay-at-home housewife who lives in Tapachula, one of the caravan’s first stops in Mexico. “There are criminals, people who come to do bad things.”
“There are criminals, people who come to do bad things”
A poll by a major Mexican newspaper showed that Mexicans are split in their reaction to the caravan.
Roughly half said they support letting the migrants stay in the country. But nearly 40 percent said the arrival of undocumented immigrants from Central America would lead to an increase in crime in their community, and 25 percent said they would take jobs away from Mexicans.
“Because many Mexicans have lived through the migrant experience themselves, they are genuinely sympathetic to the central American migrants as people,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C. “But that doesn’t mean they are ease with the idea that people can cross into their country without permission.”
The irony is that there are around 11.3 million Mexicans living in the United States, around 6 million of whom are undocumented, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Read: Central American migrants: We're coming whether Trump wants us or not
Still, in recent years, Mexico has started acting a lot more like its neighbor to the north. Since 2015, it has deported nearly twice as many Central Americans than the U.S. has. The tightening of immigration enforcement in the U.S. also led to a massive jump in asylum requests in Mexico, from around 3,400 in 2015 to 14,500 last year, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
While Mexican law says asylum requests must be processed in 45 days, the Mexican Commission of Assistance to Refugees, or COMAR, has a backlog of around 7,000 cases, and that was before the caravan began making its way through Mexico a little over a week ago. Since then, around 2,000 more people have requested asylum.
If all this sounds like a lot of asylum requests, it’s actually not. Peru has taken in around 400,000 Venezuelans in the last year alone, while Costa Rica is processing around 200 asylum requests daily from Nicaraguans fleeing the conflict in their country.
Meanwhile, Mexican officials are trying to incentivize the migrants in the caravan to abandon ship before they reach the U.S.
Over the weekend, Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto announced that the Mexican government would offer temporary work visas to any Central American who applies for asylum.
The hitch: the migrants would have to stay in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Read: "The truth, it's even worse in Honduras." Migrants face misery at Mexican border
Most of the migrants in the caravan are wary of applying for asylum because if they are denied — the Mexican government approves a little less than half of asylum claims — they will be deported. And if they do manage to win asylum in Mexico, they are generally precluded from getting asylum in the U.S., which is still the desired destination for most of them.
Meanwhile, President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office in December, has said his administration will give work visas to Central Americans fleeing their countries. But it’s unclear what the process would be for applying for those visas and whether they would apply throughout the country.
For now, immigrant rights advocates are pushing the Mexican government to issue humanitarian visas to all of the Central American migrants from the caravan, which would allow the migrants to live and work in Mexico legally for one year without going through the asylum process.
But Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City, said government officials are resistant. She described the government’s strategy as one of wearing the migrants down until they decide to give up and go home.
“Mexico is a huge country and they can’t get their act together to give humanitarian visas to a few thousand Hondurans and other Central Americans fleeing violence, it’s embarrassing,” she said.
Cover: A Central American family passes by wind generators on the route that connects Niltepec to Juchitan, the next destination of the caravan on October 30, 2018 in Juchitan, Mexico. (Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)