Exporting the American Dream
An increasing number of migrants who’ve been stopped from entering the United States are opting to stay in Mexico, changing the country’s demographics.
TAPACHULA, MEXICO — It’s 8 p.m. on a hot Thursday night in November. The inside of the bar is dim, lit by two ceiling bulbs that cast a smoky green hue on the modestly sized room. A large TV screen is mounted on a wall. On it Davido, a well-known Nigerian performer, croons. About 10 young men and women huddle around the tables and bop their heads to the music.
This could be any bar in West Africa — Nigeria, Ghana, or Cameroon. But it’s a bar in Tapachula, a city on the southernmost end of Mexico near the border with Guatemala.
Now, Mexican National Guard troops are a fixture at borders and on highways, looking for undocumented migrants heading north by bus. Once caught, the migrants are hauled back to Tapachula, where immigration authorities have stopped issuing visas that would allow them to travel north, keeping them in limbo.
While President Trump’s policies have led to a rapid decline in the number of migrants illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, it is clear that people have not stopped migrating. It’s why migrants and asylum seekers here are calling Mexico Trump’s country-sized wall.
It’s impossible to know how this new migration pattern will affect Mexico in the long term. Officials there say they are not concerned about the impact on the country’s economy. But others worry that the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the new arrivals. And then there are the cultural differences; Mexico is not currently a diverse country, so it remains to be seen how, and whether, integration might occur.
The migrants “will become the new poor in this country, the newly marginalized people and this will be a waste,” Leon says.
A DECADE OR two ago, scenes like the one in the Tapachula bar would be a rarity here. Central American migrants have always traveled through Mexico, but migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean are fairly new faces.
Many come through visa-free countries in South America such as Brazil and Argentina and take buses or boats north. There are also migrants from Nepal, Bangladesh, and India — although Asian migrants usually arrive by plane. Haitians and Africans pass through the Darien Gap, a deadly jungle where an unknown number have perished.
Going back is simply not on option for most here. Once they realize they may be unable to make it to the United States, some decide their best option may be becoming legal residents of Mexico.
The naturalization process starts with migrants turning themselves in at Siglo XXI, an immigration detention center in Tapachula. It’s standard procedure for “breaking borders” — the migrants’ term for crossing into Mexico illegally. The detention period varies; some stay for 21 days, others are kept for only a week. After their release, they’re sent with a document to “Las Vegas,” another immigration branch, to submit personal information, including biometrics. They then wait for up to 20 business days after which they are summoned via text message to receive their permanent residency ID cards. With their new status as legal residents, migrants are free to live anywhere in Mexico and get jobs.
Africans, most of them fleeing political persecution and a lack of economic opportunities, started to arrive years ago as well, but their numbers have risen sharply in the past year. Some 3,000 were apprehended in Mexico in 2018 alone.
Most of them do not want to stay in Mexico — they believe there are better economic options and a safer environment in the United States and Canada.
But new policies have leaving Mexico near impossible. Before July, when Mexico agreed to stem the migration flow, migrants who crossed into Mexico via the southern border were issued transit visas or exit permits that helped them travel through the country and exit Mexico via any border — usually into the United States. But the new exit permits only allow migrants to exit the country through the southern border with Guatemala, the same way migrants arrived.
In addition, a “metering” system enacted at US ports of entry ensures that only two to three asylum cases are processed daily, even as thousands wait.
IN THE BAR in Tapachula, someone orders more drinks in West African pidgin, a mix of English and West African languages. DJ Agua Man, who’s on both DJ and waiter duty tonight, serves them. Outside the bar, a grill stands empty, the fish prepared on it just hours ago already sold out. A frequent attendee from Cameroon tells me, “Mexico has nothing to offer me.”
African immigrants have survived here for months without being provided food and shelter, and without work authorization. Many say they have run out of funds. It is why more Africans are seeking asylum and permanent residency status in Mexico. “We have no options,” they complain.
The number of African asylum seekers is still very low compared to Central Americans — about 500 out of nearly 63,000 asylum claims in Mexico, according to Ramírez. Almost 5,000 asylum seekers are from Haiti.
Irene Lum Ateh is one of them. The 46-year-old fled fighting in Cameroon but is now looking to settle in a “nice place and bring my children here,” she says. “No other country treats you like this. In three years, I can even have my Mexican passport and still travel to the US to visit.”
In Tijuana, Little Haiti, a small community of Haitian migrants, is thriving.
Wisly Désir, a 37-year-old PhD student from Haiti who has worked in Tijuana since 2016, says Haitian migrants are working hard to ingratiate themselves in their new home. He also says many are marrying Mexican locals. Désir is on scholarship in Mexico and has no intention of migrating to the United States.
“They [Haitian migrants] are trying to integrate into the Mexican community,” he says. “There are already about 20 people studying in several universities. We have an association of Haitian migrant students here in Tijuana.” Those who are not in school work, he adds.
Mexican society has been receptive, Désir tells me. In Tapachula, where many Africans must stay to complete the naturalization process, more and more are settling into a daily routine. Some who have been here for a longer time now sublet rooms to newcomers seeking to go north.
Abdoulaye Ismail, a 27-year old from the Republic of Benin, a small West African country has decided to stay in Mexico — for now, at least. I met Ismail hustling to enter a migrant prison in Tapachula. He must be detained to be eligible to become a legal resident. “I will get a job here and send money back home,” he says. “Even if it’s a $600 salary, it is still OK.”
Tapachula looks like a melting pot, a community where some 60 nationalities are present, according to COMAR’s Ramiréz. In the city center, a restaurant advertises Guatemalan, Honduran, and Mexican food but also West African delicacies. In the evenings, locals sell dashikis — brightly colored West African shirts — in the central square. Haitian women fix beautiful braid extensions for local Mexican women.
But there are also complaints of racism. Mexico has always been racist toward indigenous Mexicans and xenophobic toward Central American migrants, says Salva LaCruz, an official with human rights organization Fray Mathias de Cordova. Africans and Haitians who are visibly dark are even more vulnerable.
“Immigrants and refugees always bring something positive to strengthen communities,” says Daniella Burgi-Palomino, senior associate with the Latin America Working Group. But Haitians and Africans present a cultural shift that will challenge a historically non-diverse Mexican society where xenophobia is growing, she adds.
LaCruz explains that while Central Americans are regarded as gang members, Africans and Haitians are seen as poor simpletons. “There is this misconception of poverty-stricken people,” he says. “Local media also contributes to that attitude with articles sometimes saying things like they [Africans] bring exotic illnesses like Ebola.”
Interestingly, these stereotypes also mean Mexicans have more sympathy for Africans and Haitians than Central American migrants (to many, all black people are Africanos).
Tensions increased when migrant caravans of about 7,000 people passed through here last year, with locals complaining that Central Americans bring violence. Many of the Central Americans are themselves fleeing gang violence from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Opinions on the migrants have split communities. Manolo Villa, a 37-year-old Tapachula resident, says Africans pose no problems but gang members from Central America have infiltrated groups of migrants who genuinely need protection. “The gang members have created a lot of problems in Tapachula and the crime rates have gone up,” he says.
Rodas Lopez sees it differently. She is also a native of Tapachula and sells tortillas near the city center. Lopez says she has no problems with people of different cultures settling in the community, whether from Africa or Central America.
“I have no issues with them. Some in my family don’t like them, they say they are bad people, that they shouldn’t be here. But we shouldn’t live like that,” the 63-year-old says. “I am teaching my grandsons to be respectful and embrace other cultures.”
Racism aside, cultural differences in religion, food, and language also present challenges. Africans speak English, French, and Portuguese. Haitians hate mashed frijoles and cannot understand Mexico’s obsession with corn-based meals. They complain of indigestion.
“My biggest challenge is the way they eat salsa and tortillas days and nights,” Désir tells me.
Then there is the violence in Mexico. African and Haitian migrants are settling in Mexico at a time when cartel violence is wearing a bolder face. Just last month, an attempt to capture El Chapo Guzman’s son failed dramatically, and innocents were killed on the streets.
African and Haitian refugees may be particularly vulnerable to human organ traffickers operating in Mexico. In Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Tenosique, migrants are being kidnapped in alarming numbers according to Gordon Finkbeiner, an official with medical humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The Mexican government is struggling to adapt to the new situation. COMAR is currently dealing with budget cuts and a shortage of resources. But Ramiréz says Mexico can handle the new load — for now. Refugees are being relocated to prosperous northern cities like Saltillo and Monterrey to increase their chances of getting better jobs.
Experts are skeptical of the country’s capacity to respond to the migrant influx as a destination country, rather than a transit hub. “Mexico does not have the mechanisms in place to provide even to Spanish-speaking migrants. Trying to provide for non-Spanish speakers makes it more difficult,” says Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, a Migration Policy Institute analyst.
Mexico will have to step up local investments so that locals do not see migrants as a burden, but rather as people who have a lot to contribute to society, Ramírez says. He acknowledges that new integration policies must be adopted and must provide for migrants from other continents. But that will be tricky. “We do not want to have policies that will create first-class and second-class refugees,” he says. “For us, all of them are exactly the same whether from Venezuela or Guinea.”
As I watched the streets of Tapachula fill up with migrants on a recent evening, I realized that I was witnessing the very first generation of African and Haitian migrants settling here. I thought of the optimism of migrants like Ateh and Ismail but also weighed the worries of people like Leon, of Jesuits Refugee Service in Tapachula, who foresee a populist backlash against the migrants in Mexico.
Migrants forced to stay here are hoping that Mexicans will accept them. Here in Tapachula, African and Haitian influences are already visible. But experts say xenophobic clashes may be inevitable as the new residents spread across the country. Ultimately, it seems, both migrants and locals will have a lot of adapting to do. As Muslim migrants gathered to pray in front of the immigration center, I wondered how Mexicans will react to new fixtures like mosques, for example, in the years to come.
Shola Lawal is the 2019 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.