Tracing The Migrant Journey: On The Ground In Tapachula, Mexico

By Rodrigo Cervantes, Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, August 16, 2019 - 10:25am
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2019 - 12:52pm

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Series supported in part by Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust

During the month of August, reporters from KJZZ's Fronteras Desk will be taking us to some of the key places migrants are traveling in hopes of a better life in the U.S. The series "Tracing the Migrant Journey" continues in Tapachula, Mexico.

flags of Mexico and Guatemala
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
The flags of Mexico and Guatemala.

MARK BRODIE: We are currently tracing the migrant journey as we visit the areas that have become the path for migrants traveling from Central America on their way to reach the U.S. And today I'm joined by KJZZ's Rodrigo Cervantes, who is now in a city in southern Mexico that could be heaven, hell or someplace in between for thousands of migrants. Rodrigo, good morning.

RODRIGO CERVANTES: Good morning, Mark.

BRODIE: So, Rodrigo, tell us a bit more about where exactly you are and why this city has become so important for immigration in Mexico.

CERVANTES: Well, unlike other border towns in the area, Tapachula is a large city, and it's close enough to the border with Guatemala — only 20 miles away from it. It's a city that grew in the 1800s, 1900s with coffee production. And probably you and our listeners have heard about the famous coffee from the state of Chiapas where Tapachula is. But throughout time, it also became the main city connecting Mexico with Guatemala. It is currently the city where the Army, the National Guard and the Mexican immigration Institute have their main offices dealing with migration coming from Central America. And that includes the main migratory stations, for instance, where many undocumented migrants are held, as well as offices for those applying for asylum or refugee status.

Jesús El Buen Pastor
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
The Jesús El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, helps migrants with a temporary home, jobs and food.

BRODIE: So what was the impact of President Trump's demand to stop migrants from arriving to the U.S. at this border area?

CERVANTES: Well, a couple of months ago, Trump threatened on Twitter to impose tariffs to Mexican goods unless Mexico stopped the flow of migrants coming from Central America to the United States. The Mexican government yielded, and among the visible actions here is the deployment of the newly created National Guard, which is supervising the border, as well as the airport and some roads. The Mexican immigration Institute also reinforced its operations to verify that migrants carry the proper documentation or are registered as refugees or transitory migrants. The president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, he says that his government is rescuing migrants. But critics say that he has turned Mexico into Trump's wall.

BRODIE: Well, and Rodrigo, considering these changes in Mexico's immigration tactics and policies — and the fact that large migrant caravans are not crossing at the moment — are migrants still arriving at Mexico's southern border?

CERVANTES: Well, according to the Mexican government, migration heading to the U.S. dropped 39% from May to July as a result of the actions that have been taking. And I spoke to Jorge Benito Melendez. He's the administrator a migrant shelter here in Tapachula called Jesus El Buen Pastor, and he says that the number decreased significantly compared to the era where massive caravans were passing through. But migrants keep coming — even from the U.S. — and here's his explanation.

JORGE BENITO MELENDEZ: Pasan un año o seis meses presos en Estados Unidos y de ahí los deportan; es un daño psicológico importante para el migrante porque sufren una discriminación.

CERVANTES: So Melendez says many migrants that wait for months, even a year at the U.S. border for asylum, end up coming back or being deported, feeling discriminated and with psychological damages. And at the shelter, you can also witness what the Mexican government has said before. There is an increase of migrants that are not Central American, but they're actually from India, Africa and Caribbean nations, like Haiti and Cuba.

BRODIE: Well, what happens to those migrants once they reach this point in Mexico? I mean, what have you heard?

CERVANTES: Well, by law, migration in Mexico is not criminalized, and migrants can stay to live and work. But law also requires them to be properly registered as transitory migrants are refugees. I spoke to Alejandro Lozada. He's a Cuban doctor. He's a migrant, and he's been stranded here in Tapachula for about four months. And this is what he said.

Alejandro Lozada
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Alejandro Lozada was a doctor in his homeland, Cuba, and a dissident. He migrated after being threatened and has been stranded in Tapachula, Mexico, for four months.

ALEJANDRO LOZADA: Es bien difícil, por eso queremos irnos de acá para buscar algún tipo de mejora. Subir la frontera y llegar a Estados Unidos.

CERVANTES: Lozada says life is hard in this town. He has no work. It's a very poor city, and many like him are just waiting to get their migrants IDs to either move to another city or to keep their journey to the U.S. And Lozada, like many others I spoke to, thinks that the Mexican government is just buying time to discourage them or eventually deport them.

BRODIE: All right. That is KJZZ's Rodrigo Cervantes on the Guatemala-Mexico border. Rodrigo, thank you.

CERVANTES: Thank you very much.

BRODIE: And you can follow our "Tracing The Migrant Journey" series from KJZZ's Fronteras Desk online at journey.kjzz.org. Tomorrow, we'll hear from KJZZ's Kendal Blust in central Mexico, in Sinaloa.

For more, follow KJZZ reporters on Twitter using the hashtag #MigrantJourney.

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