Thousands of migrants remain near border of Guatemala waiting for asylum cases to be processed
“There is no hope here."
Ruben spent four years in Chile working as a housekeeper at a hotel and despite his experience in the hospitality and tourism industry, he was unable to get a higher paying job. Originally from Haiti, he said he was skipped over for promotions and paid higher rent than lighter-skinned immigrants.
After years of struggling financially, and with the pandemic affecting the tourism industry, he decided to migrate to Mexico, where he said he now faces the same Xenophobia he tried to flee. He's been in Tapachula, Chiapas, for three months waiting to be interviewed for a humanitarian visa.
"The situation is very difficult for all migrants, not only Haitians, there is no hope here," he told ABC News in an interview conducted in Spanish. "There are no jobs and they don't want to give us our papers. All we want to do is leave Tapachula and be in another city while we have our cases processed."
Ruben is among the tens of thousands of migrants whose asylum claim has seemingly ground to a halt as Mexico’s leading refugee agency deals with an unprecedented number of requests for humanitarian visas.
Human rights organizations warn that as they wait for their cases to be processed, migrants have become easy targets for price gouging and criminals who scam them with the promise of a way out of the city. As the Mexican government puts mounting pressure on migrants to keep them from continuing north out of the state of Chiapas, migrants said they have been forced to live in makeshift shelters in the streets and in overcrowded homes.
ABC News is not reporting Ruben's real name in order to protect his privacy as he waits to see if he'll be given protection under a humanitarian visa.
Tapachula is known as the main port of entry for refugees in Mexico as it borders Guatemala. Still, the number of asylum requests as of the end of November is unprecedented. According to COMAR, the Mexican government's agency that processes refugee status, at least 123,187 requests have been filed so far in 2021, surpassing the record set in 2019 of over 70,000. The majority of those requests, 73%, were filed in the state of Chiapas. Haitians are the leading demographic in asylum requests in Mexico, the agency said.
Andrew Bahena, who works with the international programs team at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Chiapas, has been documenting instances of discrimination and violence targeted toward the migrant community. Migrants are relegated to renting rooms in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Those disparities are accentuated for migrants with darker skin tones like Haitians, the coalition said.
"If you're a migrant and you're just going to pay per person, there's a certain stock of housing that you're going to be living in, and it's really hard to rent anywhere out of that once people understand that you're a foreigner," he said. "That happens with food where people get charged more for the same kilo of rice. The problems get worse as the system stops working."
As the nation's leading refugee agency, COMAR is the only entity able to grant refugee status and issue travel documents that allow migrants to move within the country freely. The agency's director, Andres Ramirez, said they're able to process up to 5,000 cases a month, less than a third of the requests that were filed in November alone.
"This year's wave has been gigantic," Ramirez told ABC News in Spanish. "In addition to the large quantity, some people who don't fit the profile of a refugee as the law establishes have submitted requests because they don't have other immigration alternatives."
South American countries like Chile and Brazil have seen large quantities of Haitian migrants since 2010, when a devastating earthquake claimed more than 200,000 lives in Haiti. Those who are now fleeing Central and South American countries due to financial instability may have a harder time being granted refugee status in Mexico.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or ACNUR, as it's known in Mexico, has been assisting the Mexican government in providing aid and temporary accommodations in three local shelters in Tapachula. Josep Herreros, a senior protection officer for UNHCR, thinks the congestion in the city can be eased by providing alternatives for people who do not qualify for refugee status, but still need support.
"People are suffering from the congestion," Herreros told ABC News in an interview in Spanish. "This flow is what we call a mixed movement, where we have refugees who need protection and other migrants who have other needs. We think it's important to provide alternatives to the asylum process."
As another way of easing the congestion in Tapachula, the National Institute of Migration has been busing some migrants to other cities where they can continue their asylum process.
Buses have been departing from the Olympic Stadium but Arturo Viscarra, an attorney for CHIRLA, said those efforts have slowed to a "trickle" and thousands of people have descended upon the area. On Monday, Viscarra filmed how countless people took cover from the sun in makeshift shelters outside of the stadium.
"There's this complete lack of response," Viscarra said. "It's both a result of the policies with the combination of the racism that makes it more difficult for Haitians to obtain work and housing."
The National Institute of Migration did not respond to ABC News' request for an interview.
Government checkpoints have been established outside of the city and throughout Mexico's major highways, making it difficult for migrants to leave without the threat of being deported.
In recent months, groups of migrants sometimes referred to as "caravans" have formed in an effort to bypass the checkpoints and continue further into Mexico, with some hoping to reach the U.S. border, according to CHIRLA. In September, the U.S. Border Patrol was embroiled in a national controversy when images were published depicting mounted patrol agents using their horses to push back Haitian migrants as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas.
Ruben said he cried when he saw those images and felt disappointed in how the U.S. is treating Haitians. He has also grown increasingly frustrated with the asylum process in Mexico, but his dream is to settle in Mexico City and work in the tourism industry.
"I'm not trying to go to the United States; it's not where I can have a better life," he said. "I'm looking for a place where I can live peacefully. If I can realize my dream here in Mexico and have a good job, I'll stay here."
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