World Americas

Long a way station for refugees and immigrants, Mexico now plays host

shift in thought

The number of refugee applicants could reach 20,000 this year, more than double the 2016 total, causing Mexicans to begin asking what they want their welcome mat to look like.

Carlos Cueara manages a low-cost gym for refugees and locals in Tenosique. It's meant to serve not only as a space for healthy living, but to provide an opportunity for refugees to integrate into the community.
Whitney Eulich/Staff
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Caption

Five times over the past 14 years, Melvin, a young Honduran, attempted to cross the southern border of the United States. Five times, he was caught and deported back to Central America.

On his sixth bid to leave Honduras late last year, however, he decided to halt his journey much closer to home. Melvin and his family, who suffered death threats and extortion by local gangs in Honduras, applied for refugee status in Mexico, and are now awaiting the government’s response.

“We can walk around freely now,” says Melvin, standing with his family in their sweltering, one-room rental here in a neighborhood of low-slung concrete homes, not far from the northeast border of Guatemala. “In Honduras, someone is always looking for you.” [Even publishing his full name could make it dangerous for his family, which is why only refugees' first names are used in this story.]

But his and others’ arrivals are causing a stir in Mexico. For decades, the nation has sent its own citizens north to the United States and increasingly served as a transit country for migrants from farther south. But as the environment has soured for refugees and migrants in the US – and as tougher policing on Mexico’s southern border and criminal gangs have made the trip more dangerous – some are considering Mexico in a new light: that of host. This year, experts expect the number of refugee applicants could reach 20,000, nearly five times the roughly 3,400 solicitations in 2015 and more than double the 2016 numbers.

It’s laying the groundwork for a new conversation in Mexico. Today’s influx of refugees and migrants looking to stay is causing some to consider for the first time what their welcome mat will look like.

The conversation is most clearly heard in communities where refugees are gathering. In Tenosique’s small “central park” – a concrete plaza sprinkled with a handful of tree-shaded benches – many members of this small city casually mix their family’s narratives about migration with their observations about the mostly Central Americans who have lately taken to sticking around.

“We don’t know if they are here to enjoy themselves or to make trouble,” says Carmen Dama, who works at a suit-rental store. “I met one Guatemalan who told me about the violence. It’s terrible. And her family couldn’t earn a living wage. She can earn much more here,” Ms. Dama says.

But, she adds, “We are getting the good and the bad” amid the arrival of more people here.

Organizations big and small are stepping up to help, coordinating cultural fairs or movie nights to educate the public about where these “outsiders” are coming from, building parks and community centers to offer safe spaces for integration, teaming up with businesses to create job opportunities, and monitoring official responses to requests for refugee assistance.

“Just like in other parts of the world, in Mexico there’s the question of who are these people. Are they criminals? Do they deserve asylum here?” says José Luis Loera, director of Casa Refugiados, a Mexico City-based nongovernmental organization that helps support the integration of refugees. “Xenophobia is more and more present in Mexican society. But despite these challenges, we are finding a lot of acts of kindness from individuals, companies, the religious community, and some respectful authorities trying to find answers to a complicated situation.”

Bureaucratic barriers

That’s not to say that the government is making the process easy. The agency in charge of vetting and reviewing refugee and asylum applicants only has three offices across the nation. In smaller cities like this one, many interviews are conducted by phone rather than in person. That makes it impossible for officials to gauge an applicant’s body language or visible signs of trauma or fear in recounting their reasons for fleeing home.  

The small staff also means the process often lasts longer than the required 45 business days. That’s a lot shorter than in the US or Europe. But in Mexico, those seeking recognition must stay in the state where they launch their request until their case closes. Unaccompanied minors frequently end up staying in detention centers due to a lack of facilities for children. If families stay in a shelter, they are separated at night by age and gender, and if they try to rent a room in the community, they are saddled with extra costs without the eligibility of working in the formal sector. As a result, many applications are withdrawn or abandoned before cases are decided. In 2015, that was the case for roughly one-third of applications.

“People give up. They can’t work and they lose hope,” says Ramón Márquez, director of the La 72 migrant refuge, opened here in 2011.

Such restrictions also create ample opportunities for abuse.

The red and white painted chapel at the La 72 migrant shelter, tucked near the train tracks on the outskirts of Tenosique, is a stark reminder of the dangers and challenges migrants and refugees face. Some 72 crosses hang from the curved chapel wall, each representing a life taken in the 2010 massacre by drug cartel members of mostly Central American migrants in the northern border state of Tamaulipas.

Migrants and refugees are easy victims, often too scared to report crime or mistreatment. Robberies of migrants went up by 81 percent in 2015 across four southern Mexico states, according to an investigation by online newspaper Animal Político. This was around the same time Mexico started cracking down on outsiders crossing its southern border. And day-to-day exploitation can chip away at their will to press ahead.

Deans, who fled Guatemala with his wife and three small girls after more than three years of extortion, death threats, and displacement, submitted his refugee application last August. The case was initially denied and is now in the appeal process.

“When we got to the border, I saw a sign that said if you have problems because of your political views, or due to racism or violence, you can qualify for protection in Mexico,” says Deans, in a bright-green painted living room in the home his family is renting here with financial help from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

“I cried,” he says. “When I saw that, I felt for the first time that a door was opening in front of me.”

He and his wife can’t legally work while their case is under review, and though most of their rent is covered by a UNHCR assistance program meant to help refugees integrate into the community, they still need to come up with income for food, school fees, and other expenses.

Deans and his wife, Telma, look at each other and chuckle sadly, shaking their heads, when she starts telling the story about a job they found making tacos during last year’s Independence Day celebrations. After more than four days of 12-hour shifts cooking, they went to collect their pay only to find the man who’d hired them had packed up his cart and left town in the night. The story’s an archetype, repeated by many migrants and refugee-applicants across the country. Melvin had a similar experience: He painted apartments for two weeks, only to be told he’d done a poor job and wouldn’t be paid.

For Telma and Deans, they reached a point where they felt their only option was to beg. “It was the first time in my life, and I was so ashamed,” says Telma, crying.

But, she says, despite her embarrassment, she was met largely by kindness.

“I had a man come up to me and give me a bag of bread,” Telma recalls. He ran a nearby bakery and insisted she come by each morning for fresh bread for the family. “He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘I’ve been there,’” She remembers. “I could see he understood our situation.”

The couple now crochets small bags and sells homemade coconut and sesame-seed snack bars. “We walk around the city for hours each morning,” Deans says. “People stop me and say, ‘Good for you,’ ” Telma says, noting that their accents and how they look give them away as Guatemalans.

Even in the formal sector, employment opportunities are limited in Tenosique, where the average wage is between $5 to $10 a day. And alongside the flow of migrants and refugees seeking protection, gang members from Central American have also arrived in the area, observers say, driving up crime. In Tapachula, a far busier border crossing with Guatemala, challenges related to crime, exploitation, and sex and labor trafficking are far more prevalent, painting a picture of what some residents fear could come if outsiders continue arriving here.

The extreme rise in violence in Central America, where El Salvador surpassed Honduras last year as the country with the highest homicide rate outside of war, plays a fundamental role in the steady uptick in refugee applications from the region. Central American requests for refugee status in Mexico went from 1,300 in 2013 to nearly 9,000 last year.

“I feel like I have to live up to the reputation of all the [migrants and refugees] who came here before me,” says Deans.

Civil society steps up

There are few Mexican government programs for integration or education, observers say, which means civil society and large international organizations are picking up the slack. Their efforts are often small in scale, but they represent a first step toward building a refugee support network. 

La 72 actively organizes cross-cultural events like movie or music nights, and has teamed with universities across the state of Tabasco, where Tenosique is located, to host conferences on migration and human rights. They’ve also led “know your rights” courses in rural communities between the Guatemalan border and Tenosique to educate locals on how they can legally help migrants and refugees passing through their property.

“When people have the opportunity to hear where others are coming from and what they have experienced back home, there is a process of identification,” says Mr. Márquez, the director of La 72, while giving a tour of the shelter on the outskirts of town. Brightly-painted murals splash across the buildings’ walls. Near the children’s quarters, there’s a poem about resilience and tears surrounded by images of the grim reaper, a heart, and a young man in a cap and gown. There’s a map of the Americas painted on a sidewall, with Donald Trump’s face covering part of the United States. It reads, “Trump will be the one that ignites the fire of resistance among the people.”

“What people live through in Central America, many here can relate to that,” says Márquez. “We’ve seen that just a little bit of information can go a really long way in understanding others.”

M, who asked only to go by his middle initial for security reasons, briefly lived next door to Melvin and his family when they first rented an apartment in Tenosique. He’d drop by once every few weeks with food or diapers for Melvin’s infant daughter.

“Of course I’ve seen [Central Americans] passing through for years,” he says. In fact, in the 1980s, when Guatemala and El Salvador were suffering civil wars, tens of thousands of refugees arrived in southern Mexico. “But this family had suffered in ways I couldn’t imagine,” he says. “As a Christian, I can’t ignore this.”

When UNHCR opened its office in Tenosique in 2015, it focused its work on identifying eligible cases within shelters and detention centers for refugee and asylum applications. But as more international organizations have noted the uptick in movement from Central America through Mexico and started doing similar work, UNHCR has homed in on integration and education here.

“We are looking for activities that serve the community just as much as the refugees,” says Silvia Colombo, the associate protection officer at the Tenosique field office. They’ve opened a day-care center, are promoting access to school and work, administer a rent and food voucher program so that applicants can live in the community while awaiting their refugee status, and train government agencies.

Even state officials are showing signs of recognizing the need for help. The state recently opened one of Mexico’s first shelters for unaccompanied minors applying for refugee protection. It not only provides housing, but job training and education opportunities in the city of Villahermosa.

It’s common for people to move north to bigger cities, like the capital, where there are more job opportunities once their refugee status is approved. In Mexico City, the NGO Casa Refugiados runs a small center situated in the middle of a lush urban park focused on refugee orientation and education programs. Each Friday, the organization hosts presentations in Spanish, with volunteers translating in French and English as needed, outlining tips for new arrivals on navigating the city, or explaining how to pursue employment and housing in the capital.

Casa Refugiados has worked to connect refugees with employers like Uber and local startups for job opportunities, and on a recent Saturday morning a group of university students came to donate food and learn more about the refugees’ journeys to Mexico.

Back in Tenosique, about a 10-minute drive from the main square, a small gym recently opened with partial funding from UNHCR. Tucked behind a dirt running track and beneath a canopy of trees, for just 50 pesos a month ($2.50), local residents can lift weights alongside refugees, who pay only $0.50 a month. 

“Working out is life changing,” says Carlos Cueara, who manages the tiny gym. “If you’re stressed, [exercise] can make a difference.... It’s beautiful to see the brotherhood here. The refugees that come here, they are social, you can tell they want to be a part of something,” he says.

Standing in front of a large sign quoting an athlete from last summer’s first ever refugee Olympic team, Mr. Cueara smiles. He says, “by living alongside one another, learning from each other; I think we all can gain from this.”

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