TAPACHULA, Mexico (AP) — Trying to ease a backlog in Mexico’s asylum system and the resulting frustrations that drove thousands of applicants to head toward the U.S., Mexican officials opened a mammoth reception center outside a soccer stadium near the Guatemala border Tuesday.
The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, with the help of the National Guard and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, targeted those who had already made initial applications for protected status in Mexico but had waited months for an initial interview.
The site outside Tapachula’s Olympic Stadium could handle as many as 2,000 people daily, said Alma Delia Cruz Márquez, the commission’s local delegate.
Previously, huge crowds had packed the streets around the commission’s downtown offices in Tapachula jostling for position.
The commission receives 75% of all the applications for protective status through its offices in the southern state of Chiapas, Cruz said. Through August, Mexico had received nearly 80,000 asylum applications.
“The protection that we give is only for those people whose life, freedom or safety is at risk in their country of origin,” Cruz said. “It does not constitute any kind of travel permit or authorization.”
In early September, groups of hundreds of migrants set out walking from Tapachula, in many cases fed up with waiting for the overburdened asylum system to process their cases. Each time, Mexican authorities broke up the groups.
More recently, some 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants appeared at the Mexico-U.S. border. Some of them also had open asylum cases in Mexico, but had grown tired of waiting. U.S. authorities spent a week clearing that camp in Del Rio, Texas, deporting some directly to Haiti and releasing others into the United States with the expectation they would appear before immigration officials at a later date.
Some of those migrants who were detained by Mexican authorities in Ciudad Acuña were shipped back south to Tapachula.
Some activists in Tapachula looked at the stadium effort skeptically, questioning whether the government is just trying to appear helpful while maintaining a policy of containing migrants in southern Mexico.
Luis García Villagran, of the Center for Human Dignity, said Mexican officials are trying to turn Tapachula into a migrant detention center — it already hosts Latin America’s largest.
“These (reception centers) are stopgap measures. This is make-up that tries to show that the Mexican state with its institutions is resolving or doing something with the immigration phenomenon,” he said.
Fraindy Sainteme, a Haitian migrant, said he had been waiting three months for his asylum application to advance. On Tuesday, at the reception center they gave him an appointment to return Wednesday.
“I need my protocol and my definitive (document) to be here,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time and they don’t give me papers.”
He said he had spent five years in Chile before arriving in Mexico this year. Ultimately, he hopes to reunite with his wife and daughter in Miami, but meanwhile wants to have legal status in Mexico because now he lives in crowded conditions relying on support from relatives elsewhere and hasn’t been able to find work in Mexico.
Chenet, another Haitian migrant who declined to give his last name for security reasons, said that someone outside the commission offices in Tapachula had offered to facilitate the application for himself, his wife and their two children. The person charged him about $300, but he later learned it was scam.
“(They told me ) that I’m not in the system,” Chenet said. “The (appointment) is false.” An official from the UNHCR encouraged him to file a report with the local prosecutor’s office.