Pablo Manto Lusa’s elation turned into terror and uncertainty.
The day before, the 43-year-old had rejoiced with his family after obtaining permanent residency cards issued by Mexican immigration authorities. The cards represented freedom – or at least freedom of movement after months of detention in a camp for migrants and asylum seekers in Tapachula, a border town in southern Mexico.
But then Lusa began to rethink the implications of regularizing her stay in Mexico.
Lusa, his wife Nacha and their three children fled political persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are among thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers seeking to cross to the United States but stranded in Tapachula, in Mexico’s Chiapas region. They mainly come from countries like Cameroon and Congo.
Many arrived in Tapachula in the first half of 2019. But in June, Mexico has succumbed U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats of tariffs if the flow of migrants were not drastically reduced. The Mexican government began to enforce restrictions, harshly cracking down on those attempting to leave Tapachula for the United States.
Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) stopped issuing exit permits to travel north in July, prompting angry protests – the new permits only allowed exits to the south, to Guatemala where most had come from. Most refused to take them.
Protests continued until October and in some cases turned violent. Pressure from migrants and civil rights activists forced the INM to begin processing permanent resident (PR) status for Africans in November as a solution to the impasse. Lusa and her family were among the first to get their PR card.
Initially, many did not apply, fearing that although PR status in Mexico might allow them to travel from Tapachula to the US border, it could also affect their asylum claims in the US or Canada.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act prevent migrants safe in another country from seeking protection in a third country, said Robert McAndrews, a U.S. immigration lawyer and professor. at Salem State University.
“It destroys their chances of getting asylum in the United States,” he said. “This is exactly what Trump is arguing in the case of Central American migrants who have arrived safely in Mexico.”
Before PR cards were issued, African migrants turned to smugglers to smuggle them out of Tapachula, paying up to $2,500 to get to the US border. The routes are dangerous: two cameroonians died in September when a smuggling boat capsized off the coast of Chiapas. Others captured by the Mexican National Guard ended up in prison.
‘I do not know’
Lusa was in a state of desperation when The New Humanitarian spoke to her in November. “If we are unlucky enough not to be able to cross [into the United States], so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
Lusa’s uncertainty mirrored that of many African migrants in Tapachula.
At the immigration center, they questioned Mexican officials about the consequences of taking the PR card and wondered if U.S. Border Patrol agents would be able to detect their status in Mexico. Officials said there would be no problems. Migrants remained skeptical but acknowledged there were no other options for them.
The submission of personal identification data such as fingerprints is mandatory for an application for permanent residence. “How I wish they wouldn’t take our biometrics,” said one migrant, preferring not to be named.
The changing goal posts for Africans in Mexico
But most Africans have no intention of staying in Mexico. Their favorite destinations are the United States or Canada. Many told TNH in November that they planned to hide their PR cards or throw them away to avoid complications at the US border, and several have since left Tapachula and headed north.
But whatever their plans, the status of Africans who have regularized in Mexico will likely be detected by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. According to US Department of Homeland SecurityCBP and Mexican immigration authorities entered into a data-sharing agreement that went into effect in December 2017.
Whether holding Mexican PR status will negatively affect their claims in the United States is one of the big unknowns facing African asylum seekers.
Groups of Africans who left Tapachula in December are already at the US border and regularly sending information to those still processing their PR cards in southern Mexico.
Abdoulaye Ismail of Benin, who remains in Tapachula, told TNH in a phone interview this week that PR cards might not be a problem for those seeking US asylum as a family unit.
“Those who have families are already [legally] in the United States, as we heard,” Ismail said. Others traveling as individuals remain in refugee camps on the Mexican side, waiting their turn to meet with US Border Patrol agents.
In September, the United States Supreme Court supported Trump’s new “safe third country” policy, which prohibits asylum seekers from being eligible in the United States if they do not first seek protection in the countries they pass through.
Under the Politicsasylum seekers could be sent back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to seek protection there, although only the US agreement with Guatemala has so far been implemented.
The Northern Triangle, as the three countries are called, has some of the the highest rates of violence on the continent. Nationals of these countries also make up the majority of migrants heading to the US border in hopes of obtaining asylum.
Rights advocates say many of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans returned to Guatemala since deportations began last month did not know their rights or even what country they were in when they arrived.
African asylum seekers, most of whom originally flock to South America and had to travel through several South and Central American countries before reaching Mexico, could also be affected.
As of January 17, there were no reports of Africans being deported to a third country or affected by “Remain in Mexico,” a Trump-era policy barring asylum seekers from remaining in the United States while their requests are heard, which can take a year. or more.
Numbers still rising
The number of African asylum seekers in Mexico continues to rise. Some 5,800 Africans entered Mexico in 2019 – 4,000 were stranded in Chiapas in November when TNH was on the ground.
While some receive their PR cards and head for the US border, others arrive through the southern border of Guatemala.
“Some have left but more people have arrived. There are so many people here now, waiting,” Ismail told TNH this week from Tapachula.
While Ismail said most people’s destination of choice remains the United States or Canada, some Africans choose to stay in Mexico and seek asylum there, saying they are too tired to continue. the arduous journey.
Irene Lum Ateh, 46, is one of them. A former teacher fleeing Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict, she told TNH that she now wants to tour the country, learn Spanish and bring her children – still in Cameroon – to Mexico.
However, Ateh is more the exception than the rule.
“Most of [Africans] don’t want to seek asylum,” said Andrés Ramírez, director of Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR. “We cannot impose on anyone the decision to seek asylum; this must be done on a voluntary basis.
Most African migrants continue to resort to accepting PR status. About 200 applications were approved in December and hundreds more are lining up to complete the process. The slow application process is creating a backlog, but many are determined to wait, get the paperwork, and move north.
When they arrive at the US-Mexico border, other problems await them. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers – mostly from Central America – are waiting in camps in border towns like Tijuana and Matamoros. A huge bottleneck has developed as a result of a “counting” system that only sees US officials deal with a few cases a day.
Migrants wait up to six months be called. In a rapidly changing legal and political climate, this may be the time it will take for African migrants with Mexican PR status and no family to find out if they are eligible for asylum in the United States.
Some plan to smuggle themselves into the United States if they are rejected.
Those, like Ateh, who choose to stay in Mexico will likely face discrimination, racism and even cartel violence in a country where wars on drugs have led to the death of 200,000 people, say activists.
But all is not bad, according to Ateh. “Other countries don’t grant you PR after just three months. I welcome this card with all my heart. Ateh was already planning where to set up shop in Mexico when TNH spoke to him in November.