Mexico Embraces Afghan Refugees as Its Soldiers Beat Asylum Seekers Traveling by Caravan

An immigration official was caught stomping on the head of a Central American migrant twice in a video that circulated over the weekend.
August 31, 2021, 3:26pm
A screenshot from a video that shows an immigration official stomping on the head of a Central American migrant in southern Mexico over the weekend.
A screenshot from a video that shows an immigration official stomping on the head of a Central American migrant in southern Mexico over the weekend.

MEXICO CITY — In southern Mexico, a Central American migrant crumpled to the ground as an official with the national immigration agency stomped on the man’s face with his military-style boot. In Mexico’s capital, the nation’s senior-most officials gathered at the airport to welcome a group of Afghan refugees.

The contrasting images that were widely shared over the weekend highlighted the starkly differing approaches Mexico has taken in welcoming Afghan refugees as it continues to crack down on others: Central American and Haitian migrants who continually arrive at its southern border seeking safe haven in the United States and Mexico itself.

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“The way the Afghan people are being treated is the way we should be treating all refugees: recognizing their right to international protection, their need for humanitarian services and basic dignity,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration. 

Mexico has a long history of welcoming refugees, from Leon Trotsky to political exiles of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. And in a recent highly publicized nod to that tradition, it embraced the chance to help the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bring their employees to safety. But the footage trickling out of southern Mexico underscores how the country has eroded its reputation by bending to pressure from the U.S. to control the number of migrants crossing its territory. 

In the latest confrontation with migrants, Mexico deployed National Guard soldiers and immigration agents over the weekend to impede a group of around 500 people from leaving Tapachula, in southern Mexico. Some of the migrants said they wanted to reach Mexico City in order to expedite their long-delayed asylum hearings.  

One video shows a Mexican immigration agent punching a Central American man, and then a National Guard soldier slamming his shield against the man, pushing him to the ground. A second immigration agent stomps twice on the man’s face. The man pinning the migrant to the ground appears to be the director of the Mexican immigration detention center Siglo XXI, Spanish for 21st century, believed to be the largest in Latin America.

The National Institute of Migration issued a statement condemning “any action that harms the rights of the population on the move,” while suggesting the migrant provoked the aggression. The agency said the migrant “began to beat a federal immigration agent,” causing two more immigration agents to come to their colleague’s aid using “inappropriate conduct.” 

After being punched and kicked, the migrant was surrounded by a phalanx of National Guard soldiers seeking to stop more migrants from trying to pass. It’s unclear what happened to him. 

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Another video shows a Haitian man carrying his 2-year-old daughter in pouring rain as a group of 12 National Guard soldiers in tactical gear surround him to prevent their passage. As the soldiers close in, the man slips backwards, before hurriedly getting to his feet. He pushes past their shields, his daughter in his arms.

“If we stay here, we are going to die of hunger, and we will be sleeping on the street,” Theoburn Derino, the man in the video, later told VICE World News. He fled Haiti because of violence and political conflict, and had spent a month in Tapachula before trying to make his way to Mexico City. “I just want to find a place where I can work, and where my daughter can sleep peacefully.”

Such scenes of violence against migrants became familiar during the presidency of Donald Trump, during which time Mexico more than ever helped the U.S. carry out its immigration agenda. The videos were nonetheless shocking when juxtaposed with Mexico’s warm welcome for Afghan refugees. 

This month, Mexican officials negotiated with several governments around the world in order to welcome 114 Afghan refugees sponsored by the New York Times, 86 from the Wall Street Journal and six from an all-girls robotics team. Among other things, they pleaded with foreign governments to let the Afghans land in their countries so they could switch planes to a civilian aircraft and continue to Mexico—a daunting feat because some countries refused to let the Afghans set foot on their territory, presumably fearing they would have to provide them refuge under international law. 

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Mexico’s success was also a publicity coup. Mexico’s foreign ministry shared a video of the Afghans’ arrival over emotive music, senior officials tweeted about it widely, and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gave an interview to the Times’ media columnist about how Mexico cut through red tape to ensure their safety. Ebrard told the Times that the government’s differing response to Nicaraguan and other asylum seekers has to do with “the difference between economic migrants and the people who are looking for refuge and asylum”—even though Nicaraguans are fleeing state-sponsored violence. Mexico has agreed to provide the Afghans temporary refuge while they seek visas to live in the United States or elsewhere.  

But Mexico doesn’t appear to have a plan for helping more Afghan refugees. It hasn’t offered a path for resettling refugees who don’t have the institutional support of the Times or the Journal, which are paying for everything from housing to food.

Civil society organizations in Mexico have received requests for help from Afghans, but are at a loss for what to tell them, said Daniel Berlin, deputy director of Asylum Access, a nonprofit providing legal services to asylum seekers in Mexico.  

“They haven't created any mechanism whereby local NGOs can find support for individual refugees,” Berlin said. 

Meanwhile, Mexico has taken few steps to care for the exploding number of asylum seekers from other nations within its borders. More than 51,000 migrants requested asylum in Mexico during the first seven months of 2021, compared to 29,583 in all of 2018. There were more than 80,000 asylum seekers waiting for a decision in their immigration cases as of last year. During the pandemic, Mexico suspended a law requiring asylum cases to be decided in 45 working days.

Thousands of asylum seekers from around the world are stuck in southern Mexico waiting for humanitarian visas and resolution of their asylum applications, motivating the most recent caravan of migrants to try and make their way north.

“There is a tension between if they are treated like migrants or if they are treated as refugees,” said Luciana Gandini, an investigator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "For some, Mexico finds a way to expediently resolve their refugee cases. For others, there is this bureaucratic process that drags on forever and puts them in a great state of vulnerability."