The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surge of Haitian migrants at the U.S. border challenges Mexico, too

A Haitian migrant pleads with a Mexican police officer blocking access to the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 23. (Felix Marquez/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

MEXICO CITY — As the United States denies entry to thousands of Haitians who have arrived at the southern border, Mexico is reckoning with its own dilemma over what to do with the migrants massing on its side of the Rio Grande.

Its response reflects the continuous pressure applied by the United States to keep migrants far away from U.S. soil and the country’s own increasingly conservative immigration policy.

Francisco Garduño Yáñez, commissioner of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said this week that Mexican authorities will ferry Haitians “by air and ground” back to the country’s southern border, so that migrants who have claimed asylum can “continue their process” in the states where they first filed their cases.

Mexican authorities will also “support them with their safe return to their country of origin,” he said. He did not offer details.

On Thursday morning, the crowd of Haitians in Ciudad Acuña, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Tex., had dwindled from several thousand to a few hundred. Mexican police and national guard members rounded up Haitians staying in area motels and plazas.

U.S. preparing to nearly double deportations to Haiti

After authorities had done little to stop Haitian migrants as they transited north through Mexico this month, it appeared they were now attempting to prove — above all to the United States — that they would not tolerate the arrival of undocumented immigrants at Mexico’s northern border. The country’s immigration agency boasted of its new enforcement operations.

In Mexico, unlike in the United States, migration is rarely politically divisive. In 2016, thousands of Haitians arrived at Mexico’s northern border and were mostly permitted to stay there. Many lived in an area that was renamed “Little Haiti.” Their arrival prompted little antagonism.

“What created the tension this time is that Mexico’s immigration policy has been transformed,” said Tonatiuh Guillén, a former federal migration chief. “We’ve internalized the U.S. approach to closing ourselves off to migration.”

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, lashed out this week against the United States, arguing that Washington needed to move faster to spend promised development money in Mexico and Central America to create more jobs and deter migration.

“Or are we going to keep containing migrants?” he asked at a news conference. “We have received nothing, nothing,” he said. “Enough talk. We need action.”

Haitians who had lived for years in South America began in recent months to arrive in southern Mexico, waiting mostly in the city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, to apply for refugee status here. Many planned to use their refugee paperwork to transit to the U.S. border.

Mexican authorities, overwhelmed by the surging numbers, struggled to keep the flows from moving north.

Images emerged this month of clashes between hundreds of Haitians and Mexican national guard and immigration officers trying to stop them from walking north on a highway. Some immigration officers were seen kicking a Haitian migrant who was already on the ground, prompting outrage among migrants’ advocates. Two officers were suspended.

The number of asylum claims from Haitian migrants in Mexico have more than tripled this year, from 5,957 in 2020 to 18,883 as of August. The Mexican government said this month that it planned to build a “humanitarian camp” for the Haitians in Tapachula.

Mexico’s refugee agency was overwhelmed by the number of applications. They now take roughly eight months to resolve, which left thousands of Haitians stuck in Tapachula, many of them living on the streets.

Deportees land in Port-au-Prince: ‘Nobody told us we were going back to Haiti’

Authorities say their chances of receiving legal status here are slim.

“The immense majority of those arriving to seek refuge will not be recognized as refugees, because, according to Mexican law and international law, they aren’t,” Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Silva, the head of the country’s refugee agency, told The Washington Post. “And they don’t want to be refugees in Mexico. They want to go to the United States.”

Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit groups and activists based in San Diego, said the Haitians “never integrated well in Tapachula.”

“They came from Haiti with so much political instability and violence, and for them Mexico is the exact same way,” she said. “They want to live in the U.S. That’s where families are. That’s where they can get work.”

The exodus of Haitians from southern Mexico to the U.S. border was sudden. Beginning last week, at least 13,000 traveled through the country, mostly in commercial buses. They seemed to make no secret of their journeys; local newspapers covered the arrival of hundreds of Haitians at northern bus stations.

It remains unclear why more of them were not stopped by Mexican authorities, who have in the past boasted about their ability to stem northbound migration.

Charges of racism swirl as Haitian Americans, allies unite to protest migrants’ treatment

For years, the United States has leaned on Mexican officials to do more to stop migrants moving north — to secure the northbound trains that migrants clung to, to inspect the commercial buses they took, to halt the caravans of Central Americans walking on main highways. To U.S. officials, the arrival of the Haitians at the border seems to again show the limits of that enforcement effort.

The Mexican government claims that it was overwhelmed by the number of Haitians traveling during a short period of time and that it did make some apprehensions.

Some local officials in northern Mexico tried to manage the problem themselves by spreading the migrants along the border.

“We have been surpassed by the numbers,” Roberto de los Santos Vázquez, the mayor of Ciudad Acuña, told the national newspaper Milenio. “We don’t want it to keep growing, so we are going to guide them to other border points.”

But it appeared on Thursday that the Mexican government was attempting to accelerate the removal of migrants to southern Mexico, even though there is no long-term solution for them there.

Mexico in recent weeks has allowed the United States to expel Central Americans to southern Mexico and has then pushed those migrants into northern Guatemala. It is unclear whether it will do the same with the Haitians.

That approach accomplishes what has seemingly become the central goal of Mexican immigration policy: It makes it more difficult for migrants to reach the United States.

Read more:

Homeland security officials will investigate after images show agents on horseback grabbing migrants

A lament for Haiti: ‘It is as if we are cursed’

Haiti buries a president, but its long-term crises live on