by Careen Shannon, Executive Producer
Tens of thousands of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti have been waiting for months in southern Mexico for travel documents that might allow them to continue their journey north. A few weeks ago, the Mexican government allowed thousands of Haitians – who had been stuck in Tapachula (a city just north of the Guatemalan border) – to proceed further into Mexico and apply for humanitarian visas.
Rather than allowing them all to apply for their visas in Tapachula, the government issued the migrants notices to apply at various offices of the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) around the country. Among these offices was the one in San Miguel de Allende in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, where Las Abogadas film subject Rebecca Eichler lives and where I have been staying for several months.
The Back Story
Why were so many Haitians entering Mexico? There was a large exodus from Haiti in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, and many people traveled to nearby South America in search of work. More recently, the instability caused by the July 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, and the destruction wrought by another huge earthquake in Haiti in August 2021, compelled more people to flee the country.
But as the COVID pandemic ravaged the economies of countries such as Chile and Brazil, which had earlier welcomed Haitian migrants, many Haitians felt obliged to move on again. They headed north, toward Mexico and the United States. The numbers of migrants – also including people from Venezuela and Cuba and a number of African countries – overwhelmed Mexican authorities. People were bottlenecked for months in Tapachula, derisively called “Trapachula” by the thousands unable to leave.
ABBA House Migrant Shelter
When we heard that an influx of Haitian migrants had arrived in our area, Rebecca reached out to Pastor Ignacio Martínez, who runs a shelter called ABBA House for migrants in the nearby city of Celaya. The famous freight train used by many poor migrants, “La Bestia,” meets an important crossroads in Celaya, making the city an ideal location for a shelter. Sure enough, ABBA House had been seeing increasing numbers of Haitians passing through Celaya.
Pastor Ignacio and his family had started helping migrants back in 2012, a year when political instability, violence and climate change pushed large numbers of Central Americans to start making their way toward the United States by foot or by train. He and his wife and daughter would go down to the train tracks with bags of food and water for desperate migrants riding on the tops of freight cars.
Later, this effort morphed into what is now an established shelter, offering up to three nights of food and lodging for migrants passing through this part of Mexico. Because the train is so dangerous, and people often fall (or are pushed) off of the train – which can cause them to be pulled under the train’s wheels, often causing serious injury or death – Pastor Ignacio started partnering with the International Red Cross to offer extended rehabilitative services to migrants who lose limbs in this tragic way.
The Limits of Lawyering
Rebecca and I went to ABBA House along with the Las Abogadas film crew, and we invited the Haitian migrants who were staying there to gather around and chat. While many of the migrants spoke French, some only spoke Haitian Creole. But a number of them also spoke Spanish or Portuguese, as many had been living in other Latin American countries for several years. Getting to Mexico from South America, however, meant crossing the dangerous, roadless Darien Gap along the border of Colombia and Panama, often by foot. This is a journey taken by many migrants, and it does not always end well.
For example, Rebecca spoke with “Sam,” a 16-year-old boy from an African country, who had just lost his 20-year-old brother in the Darien Gap, or as he called it, “the bush.” Fleeing danger in their home country, they had traveled to South America together but had gotten separated as they prepared to traverse the jungle between Colombia and Panama. “Sam” had made his way alone to Mexico, expecting his brother to follow shortly behind. Instead, the day before we met him, he had learned that his brother had died in the jungle – a tragic but common occurrence among the migrants who make their way through the Darien Gap. Sam was now alone, and unsure of what he would do next.
Sitting down with those who were interested in chatting with us, Rebecca and I launched into a brief “Know Your Rights” session, in a combination of Spanish and French. We outlined both what rights the Haitians would have in Mexico if they obtained humanitarian visas, and what would await them at the U.S.-Mexico border if they chose to continue northwards. All of them already understood that the U.S. border is essentially closed to asylum-seekers, and that at least in the short term, Mexico is currently offering them more opportunity (a one-year renewable humanitarian visa, along with a work permit).
In fact, upon the conclusion of our presentation, one gentleman said, “That’s all very well and good. We know this already. But what can you do for us? Can you help us get jobs? Can you help us find housing? We hear Celaya is a dangerous city. Is it safe for us to remain here with our families? What can you actually do to help us?”
He was polite, but direct and persistent. And he was right. There are real limits to what even a trained, experienced immigration lawyer can do in the face of such dire and very specific needs. Most of the Haitians did not arrive on La Bestia – they had sufficient savings that they could afford bus tickets, and they had cell phones – but their need for safety, jobs and stability was foremost. While most of the migrants were single men, there were a number of women as well, and several families with small children. One woman had just given birth three days earlier. Where would they go? How welcome would these people be in Mexican communities?
Many of the people with whom we spoke were heading toward Monterrey, a city of nearly five million people in northern Mexico with significant business and industrial activity. Here, they hoped to find jobs, to locate housing, and to settle down once again – as many had done in Peru, or Chile, or Brazil before this – to work and support their families. Would they remain there? Would Mexico continue to offer them safe haven? Or would these people, forced to leave their home due to circumstances beyond their control, again be forced to get on the road, taking only what they could carry on their backs?
We have lots of questions, but not a lot of answers. The migrant crisis is complicated, and there is no end in sight.