Migrants arrive at Casa Betania Santa Martha weary from walking for days. The shelter is a waystation in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state, where migrants wait to take rides atop the occasional northbound freight train rumbling by.
They seek basic assistance in the form of hot showers, proper meals and places to sleep. Some, however, seek advice. They often query Sister Diana Munoz Alba, a human rights lawyer and one of four Franciscan Missionaries of Mary at the shelter, about obtaining a document for traveling through Mexico.
Migrants from Central America and even further afield have been passing through southern Mexico in seldom seen numbers, with many hoping to reach the US border or at least the central and northern parts of Mexico, where economic opportunities are more abundant.
But Mexico has increased its immigration enforcement in recent months, and the US has implemented policies such as returning asylum-seekers to Mexico as their cases are processed, but staff at the Salto de Agua shelter — founded and still sponsored by the Society of the Divine Word — say they’ve seen a 40 per cent increase in migrant registrations in recent months.
“Migrants travelling through Mexican are often inadvertent players in a larger political squabble, though most think little, if at all, about geopolitics”, Sr Munoz said.
They do, however, think about unhappy situations at home, which forced them to flee. Such factors include poverty, crime and climate change. There are also the of the pull factors of possible prosperity to be found in the Mexico and the United States.
Many migrants also cling to the idea of Mexico providing them a helping hand, Sr Munoz said, even though the country stopped issuing humanitarian visas in early 2019.
“Perhaps they never got informed about the risks of passing through Mexico and many still come with the American dream. They don’t realise the American dream now remains just that: a dream.”
Shelters like Sr Munoz’s often provide a refuge for the neediest of migrants, especially those unable to scrape together the funds to hire a coyote, or smuggler. Staff in Salto del Agua said they are increasingly attending to individuals tricked by coyotes or deceived by locals, who charge migrants inflated prices for everything from bottles of water to flop hotel rooms to rides into the next town.
“The municipality of Salto de Agua lives off of migrants,” the nun said. “Public transport drivers, if they charge 60 pesos (about £2.50), they’ll charge the migrants up to 1,000 pesos (roughly £42) … and they’ll leave them in the middle of the road (or) they’ll trick them and say there’s an immigration checkpoint ahead,” Sr Munoz she pointed out.
“Many people arrive here to tell us, ‘It’s that the coyote left us in this house and charged me £2,400 to £4,000 and never returned,’ “ she said.
The ‘militarisation’ in southern Mexico has forced migrants to walk for days through mountainous terrain to avoid security checkpoints, Sr Munoz said. This exposes them to more risks from bandits and corrupt officials. Many of the migrants making it to Salto de Agua continue northward by taking risky rides the “Bestia” train. The nun said many migrants would not make it to the US border; Mexico had inadvertently become the US border wall, she concluded. (David Agren)