MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s 58 migrant detention centers are notoriously overcrowded, some with non-functioning air conditioning and inmates sleeping on the floor. And that was before COVID-19 hit.
Now advocates fear the virus could be spreading through the centers used to detain undocumented migrants.
“Right now we have no idea how many people there are in detention,” said Alejandra Macías Delgadillo from the non-profit Asylum Access.
Now a lawsuit is brewing to find out.
A judge has threatened Mexico’s top immigration official Commissioner Francisco Garduño Yáñez, head of the National Migration Institute (INM) with legal action for failing to provide clear information on what’s going on in the centers. The Mexico City judge, Vicenta Margarita González Vega, ordered Garduño Yáñez to provide information about how he is protecting migrants in custody, or she would report him to the Attorney General’s Office for failing to comply.
“It’s necessary to have more detailed information to understand the situation of those deprived of their freedom and the types of measures that the INM is taking. If there is a station that can hold 100 people and there are 10, migrants can keep physical distance, but some stations are probably at more than full capacity,” said Carolina Jimenez, deputy research director for the Americas at Amnesty International.
“If the INM had a policy of transparency it would be easy for the court to understand what was going on. The problem is that it is an opaque institution that offers very little information.”
Undocumented migrants from Central America and well as African and Asian nations cross Mexico on their way to the United States, and are often detained by authorities in Mexico for not having the paper permits they need to be in the country legally.
When contacted by VICE News, the INM said there are currently 950 migrants in detention. But different statistics from the country’s Interior Ministry suggest that the number could be ten times that. More than 38,444 people entered Mexico’s migration stations between January and June this year, according to those stats. A total of 28, 722 were sent home during that period, leaving some 10,000 still unaccounted for.
When the COVID crisis hit Mexico in March, the INM told Human Rights Watch that there were some 4,000 migrants in detention.
The flow of migrants across Mexico on their way to the United States from countries from the troubled Northern Triangle region that includes El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has slowed dramatically since COVID-19 hit the region. The closure of land borders in Central America caused many migrants to stay home and wait it out. Those already in Mexico on their way to, or waiting to enter the United States, got trapped here.
Their defenders say that they should never have been detained in the first place.
“Entering Mexico without immigration papers isn’t a crime, it’s an administrative error that doesn’t justify detention,” said Macías. “The INM never talks about detentions, it uses euphemism. It says people are ‘being housed’ not ‘detained’. But people can’t enter and leave when they want – they are detained.”
So far, the INM says no COVID-19 cases have been reported in its holding facilities, and the agency defended itself in a statement published August 6, saying it has always acted with “strict respect for the human rights of migrants.”
But civil rights groups say that there was a COVID-19 case reported in May, and that the INM isn’t testing enough detainees for the Coronavirus.
Earlier this year the INM announced that it would no longer allow visits to holding centers, so as to avoid “obstacles to operations within the installations”. Although the INM told VICE News it has since lifted those limits, non-profits say access remains patchy. Some civil rights groups have also decided to suspend monitoring visits for now to reduce the risk of taking the Coronavirus into detention facilities.
Macías from Asylum Access told VICE that the last time she entered a migrant detention center was last year in the humid, southern state of Tabasco. She said that the center was overcrowded and that the air conditioning didn’t work, despite the high temperatures. “There weren’t enough mattresses, so people had to sleep on the floor.”
There have been protests in five migrant detention centers across the country since the COVID-19 lockdown took hold, due to issues such as overcrowding and fear of Coronavirus infection. Security forces responded violently to some of those incidents, say human right organizations.
The looming legal spat is in part the result of the increasingly militarized and hardline approach that the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known but his initials AMLO) has taken towards undocumented migrants in Mexico since doing a deal with the administration of U.S President Donald Trump last year.
Observers perceived that move as a betrayal of AMLO’s leftist rhetoric and a 180 degree turn on his previous stance on the issue of immigration.
The migration commissioner under fire — Garduño Yáñez — is a former prisons director. He replaced Mexico’s former immigration chief Tonatiuh Guillén in June last year. Guillén left the INM at around the time that AMLO dispatched the newly created National Guard to round up undocumented migrants across Mexico, including those preparing to cross illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mexico is heavily reliant on the remittances that migrants — both documented and undocumented — in the United States send home, and the number of Mexicans crossing into the U.S has surged again after a lapse due to COVID-19. But until immigration turned into a major political issue under former president Barack Obama and then Trump, Mexico largely turned a blind eye to undocumented Central Americans on its territory, as well as Mexicans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Cover: Migrants are guided by the Mexican authorities through the Ceibo border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala. (Jair Cabrera Torres/picture alliance via Getty Images)