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Tired of waiting for asylum in southern Mexico, thousands of migrants march north

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/24/2021 Paulina Villegas
Migrants from Central America walk on Oct. 24 on a highway in a caravan heading to the Mexican capital to apply for asylum and refugee status, in Tapachula municipality, in Chiapas state, Mexico. (REUTERS/Jacob Garcia) © Jacob Garcia/Reuters Migrants from Central America walk on Oct. 24 on a highway in a caravan heading to the Mexican capital to apply for asylum and refugee status, in Tapachula municipality, in Chiapas state, Mexico. (REUTERS/Jacob Garcia)

Yaneli Castillo fled Honduras with her two young children after gang members killed her husband in front of their house and threatened that she would be next.

The 29-year-old arrived in southern Mexico four months ago and filed an asylum claim. She was still waiting for her application to be processed when new threats arrived — text messages from gang members who said they knew where to find her, she said.

“I was trying to do the right thing, and waited and waited with all my papers, and they never helped me,” she said. “So I decided to join the caravan out of fear.”

Castillo is one of several thousand migrants who, desperate for work and fleeing poverty and violence, decided to march out of the border city of Tapachula on Saturday. Mexico’s National Guard forces tried to stop them, but the contingent pushed through. They continued their trek Sunday, hoping to eventually reach Mexico City.

The caravan is made up of Central American migrants, as well as some Haitians, many of whom say they have been stuck in legal limbo, waiting for asylum applications to be processed for as long as a year. Under Mexican law, migrants who file a claim in Tapachula must stay there until their claims are processed.

“I just want to be somewhere where I can work and my kids can be safe,” Castillo said. “Whether it is Mexico or the United States, I don’t care.”

The bottleneck in Tapachula — the main point of entry into southern Mexico by land — reflects the country’s struggle to manage the number of migrants arriving in recent months. As of September, authorities had received over 90,000 asylum claims this year, according to official data, roughly 70 percent of which are processed in Tapachula, where the country’s largest immigration detention center is located.

The massive number of applications has overwhelmed an already flawed and underfunded immigration system, especially the agency responsible for processing asylum claims, human rights groups and advocacy groups say. Rather than a caravan, one activist said the swell of migrants pushing north is more akin to a demonstration.

“This is a march for dignity and justice for migrants,” said Luis García Villagrán, a human rights activist from Mexico who joined the march. “The only thing we are asking for is for migrants to be allowed to stay in this country in a legal and organized way.”

Villagran estimated that there are about 4,000 migrants headed toward Mexico’s capital, where many hope their asylum claims will be expedited. That number pales in comparison with the large migrant caravans through Mexico in 2018 and 2019.

Video: Thousands awaiting asylum at U.S. border in makeshift shelters (


“It was only a matter of time for this caravan to happen,” said Raymundo Tamayo, Mexico director for the International Rescue Committee humanitarian aid group. “It is the result of an asylum system in crisis.”

To deal with the massive volume of asylum applications in Tapachula, the Mexican government has turned an Olympic stadium into a temporary processing center, with waiting lines of up to 7,000 people a day.

“Tapachula has become a prison city for migrants,” Villagran said, moments before the contingent encountered another security blockade north of the city on Sunday.

Jose Pineda, from El Salvador, joined the caravan to try to reach Mexicali, a city situated just across the U.S. border, where he once worked. But as he tried to travel north Sunday, immigration officers detained him and dropped him in Tapachula, he said.

“I don’t know what to do or how to survive here any longer,” Pineda said, in tears. “I don’t understand why do they not allow me to leave.”

The trek comes as President Biden faces mounting pressure over immigration. U.S. authorities detained more than 1.7 million undocumented immigrants along the Mexico border during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, and arrests by the Border Patrol reached the highest levels ever recorded, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post.

Conservative critics blame the recent surge on Biden’s decision to overturn some Trump-era policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that sends all asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their claims to be processed. The White House recently announced plans to reimplement the border policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” in mid-November, if the Mexican government agrees to accept asylum seekers, which could further strain its immigration system.

Migrant advocacy groups, meanwhile, have lambasted the Biden administration for continuing to use Title 42, an emergency health provision first used by the Trump administration to rapidly expel migrants.

Activists and human rights groups are warning that Mexico is resorting to arbitrary detentions, deportations and other questionable tactics as it grapples with the rising number of migrants arriving at its border.

“Mexico is no longer just a transit country, but a destination as well, a nation where people have the right to claim asylum, which implies a responsibility from the government to be able to offer that,” Tamayo said. “Unfortunately, the system in place is not equipped to respond to the magnitude of the crisis.”

By Sunday afternoon, migrants trying to reach Mexico City were exhausted and hungry after walking only a few miles under the scorching sun and stopped at a nearby town to rest.

“There is no food for all of us,” Villagran said. “We will need to prioritize women and children, but we need help.”

Read more:

Biden administration says it’s ready to restore ‘Remain in Mexico’ along border next monthSurge of Haitian migrants at the U.S. border challenges Mexico, too

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