sign welcoming migrants to Paso del Coyote informal border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala

Thickening Borders Across Mexico: Follow-up Stories from the Caravan

The departure of a large caravan of Central American migrants from Honduras, whose journey into and through Mexico received constant and often sensationalized global media coverage and generated often hostile political rhetoric in both the US and Mexico, has turned out to represent a transformative juncture in the dynamics of migration in North America. Migrants who might have crossed clandestinely through Mexico, exposed to constant physical dangers travelling atop cargo trains, and into the United States, via costly and risky human smuggling routes, made the journey northward in a large caravan, enhancing their safety, but also subjecting them to an unprecedented visibility, at local and global levels.

Last year in Latinx Talk, I commented on the problematic sensationalization and politicization of the caravan, based on testimonial narratives of migrants captured by the Humanizing Deportation project in Tijuana (https://latinxtalk.org/2019/03/19/making-sensation-and-sense-of-the-migrant-caravan-of-fall-2018-part-i/; https://latinxtalk.org/2019/03/26/making-sensation-and-sense-of-the-migrant-caravan-of-fall-2018-part-ii/). This project, which I have coordinated since its launch in early 2017, offers a platform for migrants to share personal stories in the form of digital stories (testimonial audiovisual shorts) relating to deportation and related issues. Its online community archive, including material produced by migrants all over Mexico and in California, boasts contributions from over 230 migrants (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/about-the-project/).

Now, over a year since the arrival of the first caravan migrants in November of 2018, I’d like to record a few more observations, drawing mainly from two cases of caravan migrants with whom the Humanizing Deportation was able to maintain sustained contact, following their migration processes and outcomes. My conclusion is that the most palpable consequence of the upheaval of late 2018 is an institutionalized hostility toward Central American and other migrants crossing Mexico’s southern border in hopes of reaching the US that extends not only through the US border control agencies, but also through those of Mexico, thus effectively “thickening” US border enforcement across Mexico. As the US government has pressured Mexican authorities to prevent migrants from arriving at the US border, Mexico has increasingly mimicked the US not only in practices of detaining and deporting migrants, but also in treating them callously.

Doubly Deportable Migrants

The first caravan migrant story captured by Humanizing Deportation was recorded in Playas de Tijuana on November 18, 2018 (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2018/11/21/124-from-inside-the-caravan/). Three days later, on the same day that we published his story as “From Inside the Caravan,” this migrant opted to enter the US at an unauthorized crossing point, where he was promptly detained by border patrol officers and detained in Murrieta, California. He takes up his story in a second installment titled, “After the Caravan” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/05/28/166-after-the-caravan/).

His “credible fear” interview was carried out by a border patrol officer. The migrant, in the story he published with us, had stated that he left Honduras after he was forced to shut down his automobile repair shop due to extortion and threats by a criminal syndicate. He was especially fearful after he had witnessed a kidnapping and testified in court, expecting to be protected by authorities, who not only allowed his identity to be revealed to the accused (and later convicted) kidnapper, but also refused him police protection afterwards. While the extortion issue was more immediate and constant, the latter threat was perhaps more serious as it directly implicated government institutions. Unfortunately, this migrant, who had not consulted with any experts in US migration law before crossing and therefore did not know which parts of his story were more likely to justify consideration for asylum, told the border patrol officer of the extortion and threats. Before he could say more, the officer ended the interview, declaring that extortion was not a justification for asylum, and demanded that he immediately sign an “alien removal” form. When he refused, the agent became agitated, telling him that he looked like a criminal, repeatedly shouting “motherfucker” in his face. When he continued to refuse to sign, three agents grabbed him and forced him to place his fingerprint on the form, which he never signed.

While his experience as a state witness to a violent crime should have warranted at the very least a credible fear hearing with an immigration judge, he was never given the opportunity to tell his whole story. While in detention, he was consistently treated with rancor by officials. For example, when he coughed, an agent threw a face mask at him and scolded him for “com[ing] to my country with your sicknesses.” He remained in detention for three months, shipped from California to Arizona to Tennessee to Mississippi to Louisiana, before being deported to Honduras.

Afraid to remain there, he returned immediately to Mexico, this time with his pregnant wife. He had not wanted to bring her, but they thought US authorities might take greater sympathy on a woman. However, by this time Mexico had begun a practice of trapping migrants in the south by authorizing their presence only within Mexico’s southernmost states. When he and his wife tried to cross from Chiapas into Oaxaca, they were stopped by Mexican immigration agents, and sent to a migrant detention center in Tapachula. There, authorities determined that his wife’s condition was too delicate to deport her to Honduras (but not too delicate to remain in the Siglo XXI detention center, sleeping on a mat on the floor).

As she tells it in her own narrative, titled “Migrating While Pregnant” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/07/05/124c-migrating-while-pregnant/), Mexican authorities not only kept her separate from her husband, but refused to allow her access to her clothes, which were in the bag he was carrying when they were detained, telling her “it was my problem, I should carry my own clothes.” She therefore did not have a change of clothing while in detention and, when she washed her clothes, had to dry them on her body. Later, when she began feeling poorly and fainted, she was rebuked by an immigration officer who resented her receiving medical treatment: “you come only to fuck with my country; we’re fed up with so many immigrants.”

While the Honduran consul opposed their deportation, one day when another official showed up in the detention center in his place, they were deported back to San Pedro Sula. Effectively liberated, they set out again for Mexico, making it as far as Huixtla, about an hour northwest of Tapachula, where, on May 23, 2019, she gave birth to a baby daughter, by rights a Mexican citizen, a circumstance that allowed both parents to immediately apply for Mexican residency.

From this migrant family’s perspective, the brutal conditions in detention centers and overt hostility of immigration officials differed little between the US and Mexico, an experience echoed in other migrant stories, including that of Douglas Oviedo, whom the Humanizing Deportation team met in Tijuana in February of 2019.

Thickening Borders Across Mexico

Douglas, who had left Honduras a few days after the departure of the caravan, was detained and promptly deported back to Honduras soon after passing through Tapachula in the fall of 2018. He not only tells this story, but includes footage of it, recorded on his phone, in the first installment of his narrative, “Stories from the Caravan I” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/05/29/166-stories-from-the-caravan-part-i/). The scene of Douglas crying on the plane back to Honduras is the only filmed scene of a deportation in the entire Humanizing Deportation archive.

rafters ferrying migrants across the Suchiate River
Photo by Robert McKee Irwin of migrants crossing at the Suchiate River.

When his group attempted to return to Mexico a few days later, they were met by federal police and other Mexican authorities who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them to hold them back in Guatemala, killing two migrants. While Mexican authorities’ treatment of the migrants was somewhat erratic at that time, with these scenes of violence contrasted with others in which government agencies provided safe transport of migrants through the country, new hostilities toward migrants were being fomented in Mexico, leading to protests in Tijuana, and the increasingly antagonistic attitudes of Mexican migration officials, which are evident in the story of the anonymous family, above.

By the summer of 2019, this institutional belligerence had spread through Mexican government agencies, an effective “thickening” of the southern US border, to borrow a concept developed by Gilberto Rosas (“The Thickening Borderlands: Diffused Exceptionality and ‘Immigrant’ Social Struggles During the ‘War on Terror,’” Cultural Dynamics 18.3, 2006: 335-49), through all of Mexico. Rosas argues during an era of ramped up border enforcement and anti-immigrant vigilantism (early 2000s) in the US that dynamics once clustered along its border with Mexico began to “thicken,” “migrating across the United States” (344). This thickening, whose northeastward trajectory Rosas observed in the US, now seems to have migrated southward across all of Mexico, concentrating US endeavors to repel migrants along Mexico’s southern border.

Mexico’s newly launched national guard, which had been created ostensibly to promote security in the context of rampant narcoviolence, was deployed to control the movement of migrants along Mexico’s southern border. Migrants, including not only Central Americans, but other groups arriving from as far away as Cameroon, were trapped in Chiapas, with immigration agents, reinforced by the heavily armed national guard, ready to detain migrants without proper documentation, and agencies, including Mexico’s National Migration Institute and the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees, putting up institutional obstacles to prevent migrants from obtaining humanitarian visas to allow them to travel through Mexico reach the US border (see, for example, the narrative of a Cameroonian migrant identifying himself as Gilmore: “The Hard Way, But the Only Way” at  http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/10/05/218-the-hard-way-but-the-only-way/).

Douglas, who elected to wait for his number in Tijuana, finally obtained an initial audience with US authorities in late January of 2019, which he describes in the third part of his digital story (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/12/03/166c-stories-from-the-caravan-part-iii/). Upon crossing, he encountered hostility, which he attributes to “racism,” among the border patrol officers who received his group. They demanded to know which migrants were from Central America, and which specifically had migrated with the caravan. ICE officers, likewise, treated them roughly, “saying offensive things against Central Americans: ‘damned immigrants – look what you did in Mexico and here you’ll do the same.’” At his credible fear interview, he was again called a “damned immigrant,” and was returned to Tijuana at the very beginning of the Migrant Protection Protocols/Remain in Mexico program.

Douglas recounts his extraordinary experience while awaiting court dates in Tijuana through September of 2019 in the third and fourth installments of his digital story (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/2019/12/03/166d-stories-from-the-caravan-part-iv/). In Tijuana Douglas became a community leader and cultural activist, cofounding an organization, The Bridge/El Puente, that would stage multiple cultural events promoting solidarity with migrants, raise funds for children in Honduras, and, amazingly, establish a new migrant shelter built by Central American migrants. Douglas, who was fortunate enough to obtain legal representation for his asylum case, was granted asylum on September 16, 2019, nearly eleven months after setting out from Honduras, and ten months from arriving in Tijuana.

A recent Los Angeles Times story reports that of the roughly 10,000 asylum cases processed through the Remain in Mexico program through early December, 2019, nearly all were denied or dismissed: “Only 11 cases – or 0.1% of all completed cases – resulted in asylum being granted” (https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-12-15/remain-in-mexico-has-a-0-01-percent-asylum-grant-rate). The anonymous family, who became eligible for permanent residency in Mexico, and Douglas Oviedo, one of the handful of caravan migrants to successfully obtain asylum in the US, are extremely lucky.

It is important to note that, according to a survey of caravan migrants carried out by El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (published in March of 2019 in La caravana de migrantes centroamericanos en Tijuana 2018-2019 (segunda etapa): https://www.colef.mx/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2o.-Reporte-Caravana-Tijuana.250319.pdf), many caravan migrants may not have been eligible for asylum in the United States under current stringent policies. The survey, in which 907 migrants participated, indicated that 53.8% had migrated due to “lack of employment or economic means” and 36.4% due to “insecurity,” neither of which, at least on a superficial read, would likely have qualified them for political asylum. Meanwhile, 2.7% cited “political pressures,” and 0.2% “religious persecution,” categories that might have given them better odds (18). This information seems to imply that only a small number of caravan migrants were prepared to present credible asylum applications. Even so, the miniscule number of successful asylum cases is astonishing.

Institutionalized Hostility

It is impossible to say to what degree this institutionalized hostility that seems to have permeated immigration agencies in both the US and Mexico, and appears to authorize treatment of all migrants, including those who may be legitimate refugees, with an animosity normally reserved for enemies of the state, contributes to this incredibly high rate of rejection. However, what is clear is that the sensation that was incited around the migrant caravan in late 2018 has led to the amplification of anti-immigrant sentiments in both the US and Mexico, a phenomenon that has had profound effects within government agencies in both countries, and whose consequences, with regard to human rights (including deaths of migrants in US custody, within Mexico, and upon return to countries of origin), remain to be assessed.

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