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Yielding to U.S. pressure, Mexico clamps down on migrants

Thousands of migrants from around the world, many seeking asylum, have been trying to reach the U.S. by flying to South America and taking the long trek north. But after pressure from President Trump, Mexican authorities are stopping many migrants from passing through their country, stranding them in the city of Tapachula. Special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico report.

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  • Protesters:

    "Libertad! Libertad!!"

  • Nadja Drost:

    Calls for freedom and the chance to leave what migrants are calling an outdoor prison: the city of Tapachula in Southern Mexico. They've been stuck here for weeks to several months, and they want out.

  • Luis Villagran:

    No one is going to stop migration!

  • Nadja Drost:

    But that's what Mexico is trying to do: stop migrants from moving northward on their journey to the U.S. and Canada. And while shifts in Mexican and American immigration policy are largely targeting Central Americans, they're also affecting those from outside the western hemisphere, from countries as far as Cameroon, India, and Pakistan. They're known as "extra-continental migrants." With nowhere to live, several hundred, mostly from Central Africa have been camping out in front of the immigration detention center. There are no bathrooms, and there's nowhere to bathe. Most everyone is hungry, handouts from a church group just aren't enough.

  • Francoise:

    We are in a prison here.

  • Isaac:

    You can't go out, you can't work

  • Nadja Drost:

    This couple and their toddler from the Democratic Republic of Congo are re-selling bread to fellow migrants to get by. They are afraid to use their real names, so we're calling them Isaac and Francoise. They fled political persecution after an anti-government militia group paid Isaac's family a visit.

  • Isaac:

    They got angry and called their commander who gave them the order to kill all of us, and spare nobody.

  • Nadja Drost:

    The militia killed Isaac's parents and two brothers. But one militia man who knew Isaac helped him and his family escape the country. They flew to Ecuador, and joined a route used by thousands of extra-continental migrants who usually land in Ecuador or Brazil, where visa requirements are relatively lax. On the way to Mexico, they must cross a thick, roadless jungle that straddles the border between Colombia and Panama called the "Darien Gap."

  • Francoise:

    It was like hell to me. I never thought I would be able to get out of it because I saw other friends dying.

  • Nadja Drost:

    They spent 15 days crossing jungle and rivers. But when they made it to Mexico, Isaac and Francoise hit a roadblock. Until recently, Mexico had little interest in stopping extra-continental migrants from traversing the country to reach the U.S. Border. But then, in the summer of 2019, the U.S. threatened Mexico with trade tariffs if it didn't drastically stem the flow of migrants. Mexico clamped down, sending 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border. In effect, the country was doing the American President's bidding, says lawyer and activist Luis Villagran.

  • Luis Villagran:

    This is where Donald Trump's wall starts. For a migrant who flees their country, more so for one carrying kids who are trying to get by day by day, they are seeing that Trump's wall starts here.

  • Nadja Drost:

    The National Guard attempt to intercept migrants without documentation crossing the Suchiate River into Mexico. Some get past the soldiers to reach the city, but for those trying to continue north from tapachula, even more barriers await.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Behind me is one of the many checkpoints that surround the city of Tapachula, where immigration officials search vehicles and apprehend any migrants and asylum seekers who don't carry the necessary paperwork to cross Mexico.

  • Nadja Drost:

    The checkpoints are part of expanded immigration enforcement throughout the country, says Luciana Gandini, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who coordinates a center for migration studies.

  • Luciana Gandini:

    On the one hand, they're increasing enforcement at the border, but that's not enough, so they're also implementing a containment strategy in order to comply with some of the strategies the U.S. is asking for.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Over 13,000 extra-continental migrants registered with immigration authorities last year through November. Many more haven't registered. Many don't read or speak Spanish, making everything from negotiating prices to understanding immigration papers challenging, if not impossible. They try to get by however they can. Tembo Yumbu cut hair for 14 years in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, he's transformed this patch of pavement into an outdoor barber shop.

  • Tembo Yumbu:

    Most of my clients are Congolese, Cameroonian, Angolese, Guinean and Malian brothers.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Yumbu's razor and pair of scissors have given him the means to subsist and carry on the long journey from Congo, it's taken him 7 months so far.

  • Tembo Yumbu:

    But this is the kind of trip that never ends. In order to not overthink and feel a lot of pain, that's why I am here and doing this, but we hope that one day we will find some open doors.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Extra-continental migrants trying to resolve their status say they come up against administrative delays and confusion at the immigration center.

  • Isaac:

    Since we've been here, Migration authorities said they had no solution for us.

  • Nadja Drost:

    There are few interpreters, meaning they often can't understand their options. So they're shuffled, week after week, month after month, from one government office to another.

  • Francoise:

    You think that they will give you the documents when you go to the appointment, but it's another appointment.

  • Isaac:

    It's always another appointment.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Mexico's National Migration Institute which applies migration policy, turned down Newshour Weekend's request for an interview. So did the ministry of external relations, which has negotiated agreements with the U.S. to curb migration. For lawyer Villagrán, the delays migrants face aren't just a matter of bureaucracy.

  • Luis Villagran:

    In the case of people from Africa, they tell them they have to leave by the southern border. They know they won't leave, so they're stranded here, they're in immigration limbo

  • Nadja Drost:

    The only way extra-continentals can legalize their status is to apply for asylum or permanent residence to stay in Mexico. But very few want to stay. Osama Mahyoub, who says he fled death threats in his native Yemen, speaks for many.

  • Osama Mahyoub:

    I don't want to apply for asylum in Mexico, my goal is to arrive in the USA. Here in Mexico, we are afraid, the gangs frighten me , there are a lot of them. There is a lot of Mafia in Mexico.

  • Nadja Drost:

    He pays for a shared hotel room using money he earned working in Ecuador before heading north. The longer he stays, the quicker it'll run out, but he doesn't see a way around it.

  • Osama Mahyoub:

    I will wait here until immigration authorities find a solution with the Americans for the migrants in this city

  • Nadja Drost:

    But Mexico's stance on migration appears only to be hardening. In an October speech, Immigration Chief Francisco Garduño announced the first-ever deportation of extra-continental migrants, sending home 300 from India. And, he warned of more to come.

  • Francisco Garduño:

    This is a notice for all transcontinental migration, that even if you're from Mars, we'll send you back, we'll send you to India, to Cameroon, to Africa."

  • Nadja Drost:

    Meanwhile, Tapachula has become a pressure-cooker.

  • Migrant:

    We've been blocked here for four months in terrible living conditions without food, without work! We've had enough of this story with immigration authorities. These people are demons!

  • Nadja Drost:

    Some extra-continentals head west to the coast, joining those who resort to paying smugglers to take them out of southern Mexico by sea. Recently a boat carrying 25 capsized, triggering Mexican security forces to carry out a search and rescue mission. One Cameroonian was found dead here after fellow migrants had tried to resuscitate him. All told, the ocean waves brought four dead Cameroonians to shore. Despite the dangers, extra-continental migrants will continue to head out on these waters if it's the only way to reach their destination.

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