TAPACHULA, Mexico—Immigration agents and national guardsmen armed with long guns arrived just after dark at the city’s central plaza on Wednesday, swarming the space in front of the historic municipal palace and demanding the people there present their papers.
It was a successful round-up. Several migrants, who gather each day along the stone benches that line the square, were detained and loaded into waiting vans. A local newspaper reported that they had failed to present authorities with documents allowing them access to this small city located an hour’s drive from Mexico’s southern border.
“The park was full of immigration police,” Carlos, a migrant from Cuba who declined to give his last name, told The Daily Beast. “Everyone they saw that wasn’t Mexican was put in and taken away.”
The raid, described to The Daily Beast by two eyewitnesses and depicted in photos published in a local outlet, was a striking show of force and the first in Tapachula in the days since Mexican leaders announced a crackdown on illegal migration and the closure of the country’s border with Guatemala to all non-essential travel.
With officials in Washington grappling with an immigration crisis unfolding rapidly on the U.S. southern border, the Mexican government has taken a series of high-profile steps to stem the flow of migrants on its own soil, responding to increased pressure from the Biden administration and an incentive in the form of 2.5 million doses of coronavirus vaccines promised to the country last week.
Over the weekend, additional federal immigration agents and surveillance drones were dispatched to the south of the country where they will join nearly 9,000 soldiers currently deployed on both of Mexico’s borders to patrol against the entry of unauthorized migrants, according to officials.
Interior raids are also becoming more common. Last week, authorities arrested the drivers of three trucks traveling along a highway in the southern state of Chiapas carrying 329 migrants.
At times, according to local aid organizations, the campaign has amounted to a publicity push meant to intimidate migrants, like the parade of soldiers and immigration agents staged through the streets of Chiapas’ capital last Friday. The details of the border closure policy, justified by the government as a public health measure despite its curiously timed implementation more than a year into the pandemic, are also unclear.
In Tapachula, a major way station for migrants who cross into Mexico and a focal point of the government’s campaign, some 150 immigration agents in white and khaki uniforms lined up in columns in the plaza Friday morning as the agency’s commissioner looked on.
The display was practice, an immigration official said, for a more formal event to take place on Saturday.
“For the defense of the nation’s sovereignty!” the agents chanted in unison.
Around the city, authorities slow down passing buses for inspection with improvised speed bumps at new checkpoints. At the border crossing in nearby Ciudad Hidalgo, more immigration agents and soldiers than normal patrol the banks of the Suchiate River that separates Mexico from Guatemala, requesting identification from people who cross it on rafts.
Immigration lawyers and activists who work with migrants in the region are concerned that the stricter enforcement is causing migrants to rely more on smugglers who take them on irregular and, at times, dangerous routes.
“At the end of the day these policies empower the traffickers,” said Arturo Vizcarra, an attorney in Tapachula working with the California-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It makes people more vulnerable.”
Isemalia Charles, 35, entered Mexico with her husband and two young children on March 19, the day the new border restrictions went into effect.
She doesn’t know where specifically they crossed along the Suchiate, but said that they were brought as part of a group of about 20 migrants to a spot on its banks where there were no authorities in sight.
“We went on foot,” she says, pointing to her knee to show how deep the water was. Her husband carried both their children, ages 3 and 6.
Originally from Haiti, Charles and her family lived for three years in southern Chile before beginning the journey north in February, at one point walking for days through mountain passes.
Her son, Juan Manuel, was 6 months old when they left his country of birth.
“It’s very bad for children in Haiti. Kids can’t go out because they’ll be kidnapped,” Charles said.
Mexico, like the U.S., is facing record levels of immigration, as migrants, many from Central America, flee violence and economic instability that has been made worse by the pandemic and a pair of recent hurricanes. More than 13,500 people filed for asylum in Mexico in January and February of this year, a figure on pace to surpass a peak marked in 2019, according to government statistics.
Outside of the Albergue Diocesano Belén, the largest shelter in Tapachula, farmworkers from Honduras lay in the shade. They had walked for eight days and crossed into Mexico earlier this month before the border was closed, leaving family behind in a country where the hurricanes had ruined their prospects for work.
The shelter, which sits inside a high-walled compound at the edge of the city, is for women and families only, so the men can’t sleep there. Even so, it’s already at nearly double capacity, with 220 people there as of Thursday.
In recent weeks, 15 to 20 migrants have arrived there daily, said the shelter’s director, Father César Augusto Cañaveral Pérez.
“Right now we’re in a migration boom because everything is exploding, with the children at the border and a border that’s closed, a border that’s militarized,” César said.
The traditional northward immigration route in the region, notably taken by thousands of migrants in caravans from Central America in recent years, wasn’t especially complicated.
Traveling into Mexico by way of Tapachula, migrants crossed the Suchiate on makeshift floats of wooden planks and rubber tires at crossings by Ciudad Hidalgo where commercial goods are regularly ferried back and forth. To reach the refugee office 40 kilometers north in Tapachula where they can file an asylum claim, migrants walked or rode on buses.
As migrants wait out the asylum process, they can remain in the area legally with limited opportunities for work. In other cases, they see the process through from a detention facility.
It’s not clear if the migrants detained in Tapachula’s central plaza Wednesday had the proper asylum documents on them. The local news outlet, NAU, reported that they did not, but a migrant who spoke to The Daily Beast in the plaza on Thursday said that two of his friends had been among those taken into custody, and that they did have the documents on them. Mexico’s federal immigration agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the closure and increased enforcement along the border, the informal route by raft had been the safest option for asylum seekers and other migrants. Authorities stationed at the area’s official border crossing, a two-lane bridge, often block their passage.
The practice, at odds with international asylum law, is still in place this week, even as the new government agents choke off the historic river entrance, said Yuriria Salvador of the Fray Matías de Cordova Human Rights Center in Tapachula.
On Monday, advocates from the center observing crossings along the bridge recorded 17 migrants who had attempted to enter Mexico from Guatemala over a six-hour period. Eleven of the migrants, each one a member of a family group, were accepted into the country and sent to a migrant shelter. The other six were at first turned around, before Salvador’s group intervened and secured their passage through. Under Mexico’s immigration laws, the six were sent to a detention facility to wait out their claims.
“I think that in the days to come, we’re going to see little by little the effects of this lack of clarity regarding what these entrance restrictions imply. The right to asylum is not negotiable,” Salvador said.
Confusion over the border closure extends to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. In an interview, a spokesman for the organization’s office in Tapachula, Pierre-Marc René, said that they did not have a complete understanding of the new border rules and were seeking clarity from the Mexican government.
In Washington, President Joe Biden has leaned on Mexico to stem the flow of migrants heading to the U.S. Earlier this week, he dispatched senior administration officials to the country’s capital for bilateral meetings. (A later leg of that trip to Guatemala was postponed after ash from an erupting volcano closed the international airport.)
The strategy is similar to ones employed by Biden’s predecessors. In 2019, amid another high point for immigration, then-president Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports if the country didn’t move to curb the flow of migrants.
This year, Biden has the added benefit of vaccine diplomacy.
Less than an hour after the Mexican government announced the southern border closure last week, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed on Twitter that the country would receive a much-needed shipment of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine as it awaits final regulatory approval in the U.S.
Officials in both countries have downplayed the existence of an explicit quid-pro-quo between the two developments.
“There have been expectations set outside of—unrelated—to any vaccine doses or request for them that they would be partners in dealing with the crisis on the border. And there have been requests, unrelated, for doses of these vaccines. Every relationship has multiple layers of conversations that are happening at the same time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
Back at the Tapachula plaza Thursday, the late afternoon bustle had returned one day after the raid.
Sitting on a bench with his wife and daughter, Occellent Fritzlet, a 25-year-old from Haiti, told The Daily Beast he wasn’t afraid of being detained if immigration authorities descended once again.
He had fled his home country and lived for years in unsafe parts of South America, and he had his documents from the asylum office in his pocket.
“I’m not a trafficker, I’m an immigrant,” Fritzlet said. “I came to the country to work, for a better life. I didn’t come to do anything bad, so normally, I’m not scared.”