The desperation of Central American asylum-seekers place them in a world beyond politics
MEXICO CITY — Two days before I arrived in Mexico’s capital city last week, the outdoor temperature suddenly plunged and the skies poured a chilling rain. Typically, with the wet season in this part of the country having passed, these climes produce dry, warm days that are welcoming to tourists and visitors.
Not so for the 3,000 to 4,000 Central American migrants who had already arrived and been brought to a soccer stadium by municipal officials and human rights aide workers, who greeted them with temporary shelter, warm meals, medical care and — most welcome of all — a change of clean clothing.
Despite the outpouring of kindness from strangers, the harsh weather provided its own cruel metaphor for the unexpected hardships that stood between the caravan of migrants and their prayed-for asylum in the United States.
Rita Robles, the Mexico City liaison for policy and advocacy at the Fray Matias Human Rights Center, told ThinkProgress that the rain nearly ruined her and fellow aide workers’ plans to assist the migrants. “We weren’t prepared for the bad weather,” Robles said in Spanish, translated through an interpreter. “There was a lot of rain. Many clothes and medicines were water-logged and so we couldn’t use.”
Indeed, accommodating the migrants’ passage through Mexico is an organizational and logistical challenge, dwarfed only by the rigors of the journey itself. Inside Mexico City’s Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City, a sprawling complex of soccer pitches and athletic fields, aide workers set up make-shift tents to care for the migrants.
One of the largest tents, a sort of kitchen and cafeteria, was originally set up as a place for volunteers to bring packaged foods to hand out to hungry migrants. That idea was discarded after aide workers associated with CAFEMN, a religious organization that assists migrant women, children and refugees from Central and South America who pass through Mexico, saw and rejected the dining setup. Nuns from the Congregation of the Sisters Josefinas took over, preparing all the meals to feed the migrants in the stadium.
There are stations where doctors administer antibiotics and vaccinations, and others where sanitary products are made available to women. Still more tents contain showers and toilets. There are even places for people to obtain psychological counseling to deal with the grief, anxiety, and fears that accompanies rootless people who have left all they’ve known.
But in all honestly, there’s little to nothing anyone can do to properly prepare the migrants for what lies ahead. Like the unpredictable weather, there’s no way to accurately forecast how their individual fates will ultimately play out, as thousands of people move en masse toward the United States.
Already, there have been enough twists and turns, mingled with political deceit and threats, in this sad human drama to fill a Kafkaesque novel.
Indeed, as the first wave of migrants entered Tijuana, Mexico, the final stop before reaching the Mexico-U.S. border, angry protests greeted their arrival, giving rise to concerns about their welfare while they traveled through Mexico. Protesters echoed President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and Tijuana Mayor Manuel Gastelum decried the migrants’ arrival as an “avalanche” that the city couldn’t handle.
Oscar Chacon, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, an umbrella group of immigrant-led and immigrant-supporting organizations based in the U.S., said in an interview that many people in Mexico’s northern towns and states resent migrants from the south out of fear that they will be left marooned on Mexico’s side of the border, where they will be in competition with these border towns’ already extremely poor population with what few jobs are available. For that reason, local leaders often sound remarkably like Trump in their mean-spirited assessment of Central and South American migrants.
“Some of the people who live along the border have come to believe that the migrants aren’t people, but are like vermin,” he said. “But some of those views stem from the fact that U.S. government officials are putting enormous pressure on local leaders to limit the migration. The pressure from this administration is really serious.”
But the migrants still come and their futures are still uncertain.
The migrants’ individual stories speak to a flight from oppression, violence, or deprivation, without a full appreciation for the stateside political debates that surrounding their trek. Similarly, Americans gripped by sensational news reports, know faintly more than Trump’s lies that became a mainstay in our election year media coverage.
For example, there is no single, gigantic caravan of dangerous people coming to invade across the U.S. border, nor are there Middle-eastern terrorist hiding in their ranks, nor people paid by wealthy activists to endure the hardships of foot travel, as Trump repeatedly claimed in the run-up to midterm elections.
Rather, the caravan is a series of independent groups, some as small as a couple dozen people or as large as 1,000 people, that have agreed to come make the trip across Mexico as a group. They assemble in their native countries, organized often though social media, and travel in large groups for mutual aid and safety.
I spoke with three young El Salvadoran migrants (let’s call them Kevin, Felix and Anna), who met each other along the way and agreed to look after one another as they each fled the violent gang activity that pervaded their lives back home.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Felix said through an interpreter. “If I’d stayed they might have killed me.”
In the most recent, and potentially hopeful turn of events, a U.S. federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s asylum ban for a month. The administration, in a naked attempt to politicize the migrants to scare U.S. voters in the recent midterm elections, announced the anti-immigrant policy, declaring it would prevent any immigrant who crossed the border between ports of entry from applying for asylum.
But U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that the policy “irreconcilably conflicts with” the Immigration and Nationality Act, a U.S. law which holds that anyone in the United States is eligible to apply for asylum, regardless of whether they entered the country “illegally.”
“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” Tigar wrote in his decision.
Asked if they knew that President Trump opposed their coming to the U.S., Anna said she had heard something about it but didn’t really understand why anyone in the U.S. would object to her coming to work and improve her life. “That’s just mean and cruel,” she said in Spanish.
Andrea Villaseñor, project director for the Jesuit Refugee Service Mexico, which works with migrants as they pass through Mexico City, said in an interview with Think Progress that people from Central and South America aren’t thinking politically when as they flee oppression in their home countries.
“They don’t know what awaits them in Mexico, far less that what might happen if they get to the United States,” Villaseñor said. “Their hope is greater than their understanding. But that’s a sign of their desperation.”