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Opinion There’s a crisis of violence and racism in southern Mexico. It needs urgent attention.

Haitian migrants demonstrate in front of the facilities of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid (COMAR), in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Aug. 23. (Juan Manuel Blanco/EPA-EFA/REX/Shutterstock)

There is a crisis brewing in southern Mexico. And, over the past few days, videos by journalists and activists covering an immigrant caravan in the state of Chiapas presage just how serious it could become.

A harrowing scene shows a young immigrant father (likely Haitian, a witness told me) clashing with a group of Mexican immigration enforcement agents from the country’s National Guard, part of the armed forces. The man is seen cowering by the side of the road after being pushed to the ground. He has a young child in his arms. As the agents approach him, he stumbles backward and then stands up. “Kill me,” he says. “Kill me in front of the child.” He desperately tries to walk back to the road as agents block his path. The man crashes against the shields, the child tightly clinging to his neck.

That scene is far from the worst. Another video shows a man wrestling with a law enforcement agent. The man is then tackled to the ground, where he is beaten. As an agent repeatedly punches him, another man, wearing a white shirt with the Mexican flag on his sleeve, twice kicks and stomps on his head. Authorities would also grapple a man to the ground in front of his child, who then rushes, in between soldiers and shields, to his aid.

These painful images confirm the Mexican government’s turn into full-on immigration deterrence at the behest of the U.S. government. After his election in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador swore to protect immigrants. He has done the opposite.

“They have understood cooperation with United States only as enforcement and militarization,” Mexican immigration expert Eunice Rendon told me. “The widespread deployment of the armed forces along the border has one clear objective: containment.”

This emphasis has given way to what Rendon calls “a chaotic situation,” in which families trying to make their way out of Chiapas are met with sheer force. “Fear is making them seek more dangerous routes to avoid detection and deportation,” says Rendon.

The Mexican government’s harsh tactics have also pushed Tapachula, a midsize border town in Chiapas, to the brink. Already the country’s poorest state, Chiapas has been forced to deal with a continuous influx of asylum seekers from Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. Haitians, in particular, have assembled in large numbers in Tapachula. There, they face squalor, unemployment and, increasingly, racism.

According to Arturo Viscarra, an immigration lawyer with advocacy group CHIRLA, Tapachula has become “a hellscape of discrimination and unemployment” for asylum seekers. “As more Haitian asylum seekers are purposely bogged down in Tapachula due to the governments’ containment strategy, they become more visible and exposed to the already existing xenophobia of the local population,” Viscarra told me.

Mexican authorities are to blame, but the pressure from the United States — both from the Trump and Biden administrations — to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border propels Mexico to violate its domestic laws and international obligations regarding refugees and asylum seekers. Mexico also fails to spend adequate resources to actually resettle refugees in the country. COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency, is stretched too thin. According to Viscarra, people are being told to wait months before meeting with a COMAR representative, leaving many vulnerable to arrest and deportation. Many are sent to Guatemala, where they face even graver peril.

Viscarra sent me an interview with a Haitian immigrant (“one of the apparent leaders,” he told me), who complained of indiscriminate deportations of potential refugees. “Human rights are being violated,” the man says. “They cannot just grab people, put them in a bus and throw them to Guatemala. That is racist, and that’s why we are protesting.” The man goes on to explain the dire situation Haitian immigrants face in Tapachula. “People are sleeping in the streets, under the rain. We need food. They are harassing us,” he says. When Viscarra tells him that the border with the United States is closed, the man tells him that they no longer want to emigrate to the United States. All they want is to leave Chiapas and go elsewhere in Mexico in search of opportunities. “Here, they treat us like animals,” he says.

Mexico’s National Guard seems intent on blocking asylum seekers from leaving Mexico’s poor south, even if it threatens the stability of the region or, worse, might produce a xenophobic and racist eruption. The abuse of migrants in Mexico by cartels and security forces is common, often with horrifying consequences. Left to simmer in their desperation, immigrants will be easy prey for extortion, kidnapping or sexual slavery, which is rampant in Tapachula.

Preventing further scenes of human misery and fear should be a moral imperative for both Mexico and the United States. The hodgepodge of contradictory immigration and asylum policies is not working, as has been made obvious in Chiapas. There is a fine line between enforcement of immigration law and abject cruelty. Both López Obrador and President Biden should know the difference.

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