By Elket Rodríguez
A crisis among global immigrants who hope—or who once hoped—to obtain asylum in the United States is playing out in desperation and hunger hundreds of miles from the U.S-Mexico border.
Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, is one of the world’s most important migration corridors. Races, nationalities, hopes and frustrations clash in Chiapas. Northbound immigrants, hoping for a homeland in the United States, cross paths with southbound rejects, the formerly hopeful, who reached the U.S. border only to be defeated by government policy and/or cartels, now resigned to head home, wherever that is.
Now, compounding their misery, global pandemic has disrupted their access to food, shelter and health care.
The Chiapas border is 608 miles from Matamoros-Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico and 1,617 miles from Tijuana-San Diego, beside the Pacific Ocean.
Although they live and serve those many miles away, border pastors engaged in Fellowship Southwest’s ministry to asylum seekers are well aware of the challenges in Chiapas. They interact weekly with ministers and immigrants coming from or returning to Chiapas.
From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, pastors in Fellowship Southwest’s immigrant-relief network described the situation in Chiapas.
Pastor Carlos Navarro of Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas, has partnered with multiple Chiapas ministries that serve immigrants. IB West Brownsville operates an immigrant respite center, where immigrants eat a meal, take a shower, receive clean clothes and hear the gospel.
Navarro calls Chiapas Mexico’s “bottleneck,” where migrant flows converge. He is well aware of the turmoil migrants, government officers and civilians experiencing on the southern edge of Mexico, just across from Guatemala.
“The situation is very tense in the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, and in the migration station located in the adjacent town of Tapachula,” Navarro said. “Guatemala closed its borders with Mexico and is not accepting any more deportation flights from the United States. El Salvador and Honduras did the same.”
Some migrants try to cross into Guatemala, where civilian patrols—fearing the spread of COVID-10—prevent them from entering.
Still, Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency continues to transport hundreds of immigrants from the U.S. border to the migrant station in Tapachula. These homebound immigrants meet other refugees who expect to reach the United States.
The migrant flow runs south-to-north and north-to-south, Navarro explained. “Those who are coming from the north (U.S.-Mexico) have realized they didn’t get a court citation” under the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. “They are being met in Chiapas by those who want to move north.”
Every time immigrants must move to different tent camps, detention centers or shelters, they encounter a power structure or hierarchy among the residents, normally dominated by refugees who have been there the longest. Often, newly arrived immigrants are not a priority food resources are distributed.
“Those who are returning to Chiapas are faced with the fact the groups that live there already control the area,” Navarro noted. “I’m talking about those who have failed in their attempts to travel north because they don’t have the resources. There is a large group of Haitians, Venezuelans, Chinese, Nepalis and Bangladeshis.”
A large group of immigrants left the Matamoros camp on the U.S. border because they were not getting enough to eat or were eating just once a day. Meanwhile, their presence was “destabilizing” the groups waiting for their cases under “Remain in Mexico.”
“Once these migrants return to Chiapas, they are in a limbo,” Navarro lamented.
“The Mexican government is prioritizing feeding the Mexican nationals,” he added.
“Those who were there before them have integrated into Chiapas’ social structure. (Newly arrived immigrants” come dehydrated and with mental strain. They only have water and whatever they can get to eat. They don’t have access to hygiene products, either. Nobody wants to deal with them.”
In Juarez-El Paso, Pastor Rosalio Sosa said reports he receives from Chiapas are similar to Navarro’s.
“There is a crisis right now,” Sosa affirmed. “There are migrants who go three to four days without eating. They get desperate, and they want to jump over the fence to Guatemala, and government officials are trying to control the flow.”
Sosa coordinates Red de Albergues Para Migrantes (Migrant Shelter Network), a ministry that serves 2,800 refugees in 14 immigrant shelters in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Every day, the shelters receive hundreds of immigrants.
“The migrant station in Tapachula is overcrowded and the migrants who are transferred there sometimes are not given anything to eat,” he reported. “If I had the resources, I would move there to help them.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Juvenal González continues working with shelters in Tijuana. The information he receives from migrants who traveled to or from Chiapas coincide with his colleagues’ observations.
“There is a serious problem. People need to get deported to go back to their countries, but they can’t,” González affirmed.
He oversees two shelters in Tijuana, just south of San Diego, which house about 120 refugees.
Migrants cannot get out of Chiapas, González said. “They can only walk through the city. If the government sees you trying to leave Tapachula, they will automatically take custody of you.”
Fellowship Southwest provides ongoing support to the immigrant-relief ministries of González, Navarro, Sosa and other border pastors. If you would like to help them be the presence of Christ among immigrants, click here.
Elket Rodríguez is the immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.