The Suchiate River marks the border between Guatemala and Mexico as a murky, khaki-colored expanse. It flows slowly; if you don’t mind getting wet up to your thighs, it’s narrow and shallow enough to cross walking with a backpack hitched high.
Last year, the migrant caravan that left Honduras in October walked through this river, only to be greeted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and a helicopter on the other side, as Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto sent dozens of federal police to block their entrance.
But as a new caravan, which initially started with 2,000 people from San Pedro Sula, makes its way through Mexico, and with a new Mexican president in power, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Central American migrants face a different welcome.
Earlier this month, the Mexican government announced that it would offer expedited humanitarian visas to Central Americans entering the country. The visa, resembling a driver’s license and green like a US dollar bill, allows people to move freely and seek work anywhere in Mexico for a year. It also offers access to health services and education, and the right to leave and reenter the country. After a year, if visa holders wish to remain in Mexico, they can renew it.
According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM), more than 15,000 people—mostly from Honduras, but also from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and a handful from Cuba and Angola—applied for the visa. Among them are 3,000 children and adolescents.
On Jan 29, the head of INM, Tonatiuh Guillén López, announced that the program would be closed to new applicants: It was “too successful,” he said. Instead, Salvadorans and Hondurans can apply for alternative work permits previously reserved for Belizeans and Guatemalans; these allow them to work only in seven southern states of Mexico, where poverty is higher.
Both visas are indicative of a more welcoming approach to migrants, championed by AMLO’s new government, and an attempt to encourage development as part of a $20 billion plan to address the causes of migration in the Northern Triangle.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Roberto Velasco Alvarez of the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs cited the most recent United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: “Mexico’s position will no longer be one of migration deterrence and blockage.”
“A plan to boost development in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that creates employment and, as a consequence, lowers crime rates, represents a better and more effective alternative than merely focusing in stemming the outflow of immigrants,” he wrote.
Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based human-rights think tank, calls Mexico’s move “a laudable commitment,” but cautions that the visas “don’t address all the reasons people are fleeing,” their homes, she says.
“The government needs to provide more options to those that do want to seek more asylum, which is a more permanent option,” says Meyer.
Mexico has historically been considered a transit country for people migrating north to the United States. But a combination of increasing instability in Central America and stricter US policies has meant that the number of people seeking asylum there has increased more than twentyfold, to nearly 30,000 between 2013 and 2018.
This created a two-year backlog in processing refugee requests, handled by the understaffed and underfunded Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR). The agency has only three offices in the entire country, and none north of Mexico City; by contrast, the INM, which operates separately, promised to process the more short-term humanitarian visas in just five days, and hired extra staff in Chiapas to help fulfil this. Unlike asylum, the humanitarian visa does not immediately lead to permanent residency in Mexico.
For most, though, the offer of one year to work and move through Mexico safely was enough. On the Guatemalan side of the Suchiate river, Keila, 29, and Sayra, 32, from Honduras, sat with Marlin, 26, from Guatemala, under makeshift tarps. Hundreds of people scheduled to receive their visas lined up with torn cardboard boxes to shield their faces from the tropical sun beating down on no-man’s land.
Keila, who had caught a bus to the Guatemalan-Mexican border with her 9-year-old son, had her wristband and was waiting for the visa. Sayra and Marlin had gotten to the border just the day before, and still had not had the chance to even sign up for the wristbands; they were worried they might miss out.
As the three women lounged under the sun, Keila gave the other two advice on how to budget while waiting. “Go to the market for avocados, tortillas, and cheese,” she said. “And wash your clothes in the river, it’s free. It’s not as good as a washing machine, but it’ll get rid of the sweat, at least.”
Keila said that at least the humanitarian visa would allow her and her husband to work while waiting for their turn to plead for asylum in the United States. She called the visa a useful “tool,” but still hoped eventually to make it to the US. “I have family there and they are going to give us part of the money to cross, but we have to work to make up the other part,” she said.
Her chances for making it to the United States are slim, though, as the US government is growing increasingly hostile to all immigrants, with those seeking legal asylum stuck in between changing border policies. On the same day Mexico ended its offer of fast-track humanitarian visas, the United States began its “Migrant Protection Protocols” policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” Under this protocol, U.S. authorities have begun to send some asylum seekers crossing the San Ysidro port of entry back to Tijuana while their cases are being processed.
It has risks: Tijuana’s murder rate hit an all-time high in 2018, and in December, two teenage boys from October’s caravan were murdered there while waiting to enter the US to plead asylum. With shelters overflowing, and migrants forced to sleep outside without access to food or protection, they face risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, and trafficking.
According to the executive director of Amnesty International, Margaret Huang, “This deal is a stark violation of international law, flies in the face of US laws passed by Congress, and is a callous response to the families and individuals running for their lives.”
Still, for those who already have humanitarian visas but who hope to ultimately apply for asylum in the United States, Maureen Meyer says at least they will have a human, legal way to be in Mexico. “Yet another unforeseen use of the humanitarian visa,” she says.
What’s more, the right of passage means that those now entering no longer need to seek safety in numbers, as the infamous caravan had last year. Though various groups have still chosen to travel together, largely for economic reasons, those with means will also be able to use safer, faster modes of transportation, taking advantage of Mexico’s vast bus network, without worrying about immigration checks along the way.
Relaxing on the Mexican side of the river on a recent Thursday, Samuel, 21, from Honduras, already had his card. He said he had asked his cousin to come with him, but his cousin had declined. When Samuel received his visa, he took a picture with his iPhone 5 and sent it to his cousin. “He’s so mad he didn’t come now,” Samuel laughed.
A week later, Samuel and the small group of men he was traveling with—fellow Hondurans he met along the way: Orión, 42, a single father traveling with his 12-year-old son, Juan Carlos; and Orión’s brother-in-law, Edouin, 43—boarded a bus from nearby Tapachula directly to Mexico City. After nearly 20 hours, they arrived at the city’s vast northern bus terminal. Although family members in the United States and Honduras had wired them money, they were aware their funds were limited, and decided to get on their next bus straight away to save on accommodation. At the ticket counter, Orión, Edouin, and Juan Carlos counted out a stack of bills for three tickets to the state of Coahuila, along the border with Texas.
Edouin wanted to make it to upstate New York where his wife and 3-year-old daughter lived. Orión’s goal was Houston, where his brother lived. He was skeptical they would celebrate Juan Carlos’s birthday, which was in mid-February, there.
Samuel, on the other hand, was about to board a more than 30-hour bus ride to Mexicali, where his brother had lived for the past three years. His plan was to work for a few months—“no more than three,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the idea of staying for longer—and, together with his brother, eventually go to Louisiana, where a Honduran friend who was also a US citizen, had offered him a job.
While the others bought water at an Oxxo convenience store, Samuel decided he didn’t need anything, and would just buy food along the way if the bus stopped at a restaurant. “I don’t need much,” he shrugged. On the bus later, he snapped photos of the sunrise and uploaded them to his Whatsapp status with a folded hand emoji, and thanked God for keeping him safe.