By Lizbeth Diaz
TAPACHULA, Mexico, Tue September 21 (Reuters) – An attempt by Mexico to contain thousands of migrants on its southern border with Guatemala has created a major humanitarian headache for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and failed to prevent many to reach the US border in droves.
Desperate to find work, fleeing poverty or violence, Central Americans, Haitians and South Americans stuck in limbo in the southern town of Tapachula have staged protests and launched repeated escape attempts in migrant caravans.
This month, some of them escaped Mexican authorities to join more than 10,000 migrants who passed through Del Rio, Texas, to form a sprawling new camp, reigniting concerns in the United States about a huge increase in illegal immigration.
A record number of migrants have passed through Mexico this year, driven by economic downturns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and lured by hopes of more welcoming immigration policies under US President Joe Biden.
For the thousands of people still stranded near the Guatemalan border in the town of Tapachula, many living in squalid or cramped conditions, despair sets in as they wait for their travel documents or slowly run out of silver.
“It’s a prison,” complains Jairo Gonzalez, 36, a Nicaraguan construction worker stuck in Tapachula. “There’s nothing you can do if you don’t have money to eat.”
Gonzalez said he arrived in Mexico City by bus more than a month ago after entering the country illegally hoping to find a job in the United States or Mexico.
But Mexican officials detained him and sent him to Tapachula, he said. Gonzalez said he urged them to send him home, but was told he would not be deported. Now he says he doesn’t have the money to go back.
The government’s National Migration Institute declined to comment on the confinement of migrants in Tapachula. The Foreign Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of the migrants stranded in Tapachula entered Mexico illegally while others seek asylum.
International watchdog Human Rights Watch visited the area in August and reported that although asylum seekers were technically allowed to travel anywhere in Tapachula’s home state, the Chiapas, until their case was resolved, immigration checkpoints prevented them from leaving the city.
Mexican security officials were filmed this month beating migrants trying to leave Tapachula, drawing criticism from UN human rights and refugee offices, and even Lopez Obrador himself.
Two immigration officers have been suspended.
Washington has urged Mexico to screen migrants as the number of those who have stopped trying to cross the US border has more than doubled this year, with more than 200,000 apprehended in some months.
The Mexican government says its containment measures are aimed at enforcing its own laws and protecting the rights of migrants.
Mexican officials say much of the chaos stems from the dismantling of asylum protections under former US President Donald Trump and during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 emergency measures have led to summary deportations of undocumented immigrants at the U.S. border into Mexico, which in turn has encouraged them to attempt repeat crossings, they say.
Biden’s promises to strengthen migrant protections in the United States and improve the humanitarian plight of asylum seekers have further encouraged people to try their luck, they say.
The US Department of Homeland Security and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department declined to comment.
To discourage migration, over the summer the United States began sending flights of detained migrants to southern Mexico, including Tapachula. Mexico has also moved detained migrants by air from the north of the country to the south.
Absorbing these expulsions, Chiapas is now home to tens of thousands of migrants. As many as 40,000 were in Tapachula this month, and discontent among the resident population is growing, a Mexican official said.
“This chaos will be the end of Tapachula,” said Alejandro Diaz, a local trader. “A lot of (migrants) don’t wear a mask and we are worried about our health. You can’t drive here anymore and even the sidewalks are used by them all day.
Many visitors to the wet city of around 350,000 people had to sleep rough. Others band together to sneak into cheap accommodation.
To break the impasse, several caravans have left for the American border in recent weeks. Security forces blocked or dispersed the caravans. But many people still passed.
Lopez Obrador says he wants migrants to stay in southern Mexico, arguing that those who go north risk falling prey to criminal gangs.
Many people adrift in Tapachula say they have tried to apply for asylum or the right to transit through Mexico, but their applications have been caught up in bureaucracy.
“We don’t deserve to live like this,” said Haitian Lutherson Derisma, 35, who has been in the city for two months. “We did not come here to do evil. I want my family to have a future, but they are not helping us here.
Derisma showed a message on her phone from the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) stating that all appointments at her local office would be rescheduled due to the volume of applications, duplicate applications, errors and the fraud.
COMAR expects a record of over 100,000 requests this year, down from a previous peak of 70,000 in 2019. A spokesperson said the delays were due to high demand exceeding capacity.
(Additional reporting and writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alistair Bell)