TAPACHULA – Benjamín Villalta, a 39-year-old Nicaraguan, couldn’t believe that a Mexican immigration office would open in the middle of the night to give him and some 40 other migrants one-year humanitarian visas allowing them to move about Mexico and work.
“They took our information and at most we waited half an hour,” said the excited Villalta. It was a radical change from his first contact with Mexican authorities in early November, who detained him and then dumped him at a remote border crossing with Guatemala. Undeterred, he caught up with a migrant caravan that had left Tapachula, spent three weeks walking with them and then took the government’s offer of a bus ride to another city and a humanitarian visa.
Such an option would have been a fantasy before and is now part of a major overhaul of how Mexico is handling migrants at its southern border. It came just days before the United States and Mexico announced Thursday a deal to re-implement under court order a Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico” at Mexico’s northern border that forced asylum seekers to wait out their cases inside Mexico.
Both sets of policies seek to alleviate immigration pressures on the respective governments. In the south, Mexico is trying to relieve growing frustration among migrants the government has contained in Tapachula. “Remain in Mexico,” swiftly suspended by Joe Biden when he took office, was intended by the previous administration to deter asylum seekers by making them wait in Mexico’s dangerous northern border cities.
The dilemma of how to cope with the migrant caravans departing Tapachula pushed Mexico to find alternatives. After more than two years of a containment policy that kept migrants stuck in the south, far from the U.S. border, Tapachula — a sweltering city of some 350,000 — was overwhelmed with tens of thousands of recent migrants. They have been crowded in parks and plazas, many complaining they couldn’t find work.
The new plan is to move migrants to other states across Mexico and give them humanitarian visas to let them work legally for a year, according to the National Immigration Institute.
The effects of that policy change remain unclear, especially since many of the migrants still aspire to make it to the United States — but will now do so from cities closer to the U.S. border.
In recent days, some 3,000 people, mostly Haitians, have camped under trees and in the parking lot of Tapachula’s soccer stadium. They wait for buses that the Mexican government will use to ferry migrants to other cities and hope for the humanitarian visas, but don't know where they'd go — or when the buses will arrive.
“I want to go to another city to look for work,” said Haitian migrant Edwine Varin, while she and her husband and son sought shade under a sheet at the stadium. “If I don’t work, how am I going to pay rent? How am I going to buy food, clothes for the kids?”
A Venezuelan migrant who would only give his name as Jeferson said that he had just arrived to Tapachula with his mother. “We were coming by on the bus because we were going to turn ourselves in to immigration and we saw all the people,” Jeferson said. An Associated Press journalist saw them board a government bus later that same day, though where it was headed was unclear.
With little information, migrants have attempted to organize themselves, but it’s not always successful. Some have blocked roads to demand the government send more buses. The immigration institute has not said how many migrants have been given the humanitarian visas or bused elsewhere.
As part of the deal to re-implement “Remain in Mexico,” the U.S. will vaccinate asylum seekers enrolled in the program and help pay for to efforts to shelter them in Mexico.
Mexico’s own asylum system has been swamped by requests as some migrants saw it as a more attainable alternative to the United States. This year, Mexico has received more than 123,000 applications for asylum compared to about 70,000 in 2019, according to government data released Wednesday.
The slow processing of asylum applications in Mexico’s overworked system combined with few job opportunities and limited housing frustrated migrants. Hundreds started walking out of Tapachula in caravans in August, the earliest of which were swiftly dissolved by Mexico security forces, sometimes violently.
Others left more discreetly. Almost without notice, several thousand Haitian migrants appeared at the border in Del Rio, Texas, in September.
Haitians have been the leading applicants for asylum in Mexico this year, accounting for more than 47,000 cases.
The number of migrants receiving the humanitarian visas could still be relatively small, but “it is a very significant change if compared with the confrontation the National Guard had with the caravans a few months ago and the severe experiences of control that faced migrants and asylum seekers,” said Tonatiuh Guillen, who led the immigration institute at the beginning of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration in late 2018 and early 2019.
Others were less optimistic. “It is an improvised reaction," by immigration authorities, said Enrique Vidal Olascoaga, a lawyer for the Fray Matias de Cordova Center, a nongovernmental organization assisting migrants in Tapachula. “They have the people completely uninformed and they think they can move them like merchandise.”
The Rev. César Cañaveral, who leads migrant outreach efforts of the Roman Catholic Church in Tapachula, did not see it as a lasting solution. When the government gave similar visas at the beginning of 2019 after massive caravans, the migrants were shipped back to Tapachula when the visas expired and they were not renewed, he said.
Cases have also been reported this year of authorities detaining migrants despite valid permission to travel north and returning them to Tapachula.
Still the migrants receiving them this time are relieved.
A week after receiving his humanitarian visa, 28-year-old Honduran migrant Josue Madariaga was already working in a market in the northern city of Monterrey. “They told me that with my credential they accepted me with insurance and everything!” Madariaga said.
Many migrants, however, will keep their sights set on the United States.
Villalta, the Nicaraguan migrant, had made it into Veracruz state with the caravan before accepting the government’s offer to be bused to the north-central Mexico state of San Luis Potosi to get his visa. From there he quickly moved north to Monterrey with other migrants and then to the border with Arizona.
On Thursday, after hearing about the re-implementation of “Remain in Mexico,” Villalta made his attempt at the border. He called his mother, then walked into U.S. territory. When he saw the Border Patrol, he knelt and raised his hands above his head.
He said he hoped that documents certifying that he was politically persecuted by the government of Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega and a victim of torture would help him win asylum in the U.S. before they started returning asylum seekers to Mexico again.
Márquez reported from Los Algodones, Mexico, and Verza from Mexico City.