TAPACHULA, Mexico – Haitians are still arriving in Mexico. But what they really want is to be allowed to reach the United States.
They have trekked through many countries, and suffered tragedy after tragedy. Life has shown them no mercy. And they deserve a break.
To reach the United States, Haitians first have to cross the Suchiate River, which marks the border between Guatemala and Mexico. That river is not famous for killing people. On the contrary. Even during the rainy season, it allows crossings by thousands of migrants, from south to north, in rudimentary rafts made of inner tubes and wood planks. The crossing costs $1.50 per person. Haitians prefer to cross at night, in isolated areas.
I was just there, and there were no officials or police along the river. And when they showed up, they did not stop anyone coming from Guatemala. The problems come later. When those same Haitian migrants try to move deeper into Mexican territory, they are being stopped and arrested. To get on a bus, they are required to provide documents showing they are legally in the country, which of course they don’t have.
Mexico, which has millions of migrants living in the United States, has now taken on the shameful task of detaining migrants from other countries who only want to pass through. It is violating their right to transit. Mexico, under strong pressure from the United States, is creating its own wall.
There are about 30,000 Haitians in Mexico, a senior Foreign Ministry official told The New York Times. I met many of them in Tapachula. And their stories are sad and amazing. Thousands fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and settled in South American countries like Brazil and Chile, which they could enter with fewer immigration obstacles. But the lack of opportunities and the economic problems created by the pandemic forced them to take the dramatic and sometimes fatal decision to head for the United States.
Silvio and Sandra left Haiti for Chile. That’s where their baby was born. And when the girl was two months old, they started the trek to Mexico. “We traveled by land,” Silvio told me, “about 25 days.” When I spoke with them, the baby was sleeping quietly, as though she had never crossed half a continent.
The young Haitian, who sells passion fruit-flavored water in the Tapachula market, passed through nine countries before he reached Mexico. He lived in South America for awhile, but when the Coronavirus killed the jobs he headed north.
“Do you want to get to the United States?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course,” he told me. Some Haitians talk about gangs, crime and bad politicians in their country. And almost always there are stories of death. “My son died, and my father died,” one of them told me. “And so I came here looking for life.”
I also found migrants from other countries. Mariana, from Angola on southwest Africa, helps out at a chicken place in the Tapachula market. She and her mother reached Mexico from Brazil. And she recounted the horror of seeing “dead people” as they crossed the jungle of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. Mariana has the alert look of someone who has lived too much at age 16.
Many Haitians also had to cross that jungle to reach Mexico. But once they get here, life is not easy. I watched them wander around the streets of this city, aimlessly, with children hanging on to their hands and with no money for their next meal. They can carry everything they own. And to return to Haiti, after the earthquake in August that left more than 2,000 dead, is unthinkable.
They have no papers to live legally anywhere outside Haiti, the Mexican bureaucracy is not quick enough to register them and even newborns cannot get birth certificates. They do no exist, for anyone. I watched a group of about 200 Haitians fight to get into a refugee center. They were desperate. And despite the best of intentions, only a few were allowed in.
On the outskirts of Tapachula, Fr. Cesar Cañaveral does magic to house about 300 refugees at the Belen Diocesan Shelter. His work is almost miraculous. The food is meager, there’s no milk for the children or beds for everyone. The church, the garden, the seminary and even the offices are protecting the fortunate few who manage to get in for a few weeks. During my visit I saw two babies just born. They have names, but no birth certificates.
When I left the shelter, Haitian migrants were still arriving, forming a long waiting line on the street with the vague hope of entering. They had nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. No papers, no clothes, no food, no money. Just the word from someone who had told them that someone could help them there.
That is the new face of migration.
I was in this city in 2018, when caravans of Central America migrants flowed through Mexican territory on their way to the United States. For the migrants, it was preferable to face the cruelty of the Trump era than to deal with the violence, gangs, hunger and climate change in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Venezuelans and Cubans came later. Now it’s Haitians.
Haiti, it hurts to say, has done badly in the distribution of tragedies. Aside from earthquakes, violence has hit everything. In July, President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. Haitian actor and activist Jimmy Jean-Luis told me that gang violence “has been around for some time, but the last year has been very grave.” Jean-Luis sees the origin of the current crisis in the Duvalier dictatorship and the subsequent political instability. And if we add that Haiti was the last nation in the hemisphere to receive Covid vaccines, any bit of optimism vanishes.
The city of Tapachula has been extraordinarily generous with the migrants. I have seen people come out of their homes to offer food and water to grateful foreigners. But there are not enough resources or places to properly serve the new wave of Haitian migrants. The water fountain in the central plaza has been fenced off to keep the new arrivals from using it to drink and bathe. Tapachula is overwhelmed.
The irony is that the Haitians want to leave. Their plans never included settling in Tapachula. But the Mexican government does not allow that, and soldiers, National Guard members and officials of the National Migration Institute follow those who try to walk away, and have buses ready to return them to Tapachula. Those who cannot go on any more, or have run out of luck, are repatriated “voluntarily.”
In the end, all of this is useless. The wall in Mexico, like the one in the United States, will not be able to stop those who are fleeing hunger and violence. And little by little, or in caravans, these Haitian migrants will leave here on their trek to the north.
When you have lost everything – even fear – nothing can stop you.