A caravan of hundreds of Haitian, Cuban, Central American and South American migrants clashed with members of the National Guard (GN) and immigration agents on Saturday after leaving Tapachula, Chiapas, on foot.
The GN and National Immigration Institute (INM) agents resorted to using force to halt the advance of some 600 migrants who departed Tapachula after staging protests for several weeks to demand that their asylum cases be extradited.
Video footage showed scuffles between the authorities and the migrants. One video posted to social media showed an INM agent kicking and attempting to stomp on the head of one migrant who had been tackled to the ground and punched by another agent.
Dozens of male and female migrants, some of whom were accompanied by children, were detained and taken to a detention center in Tapachula, while others fled.
The clashes took place about 15 kilometers south of Huixtla, a town approximately 40 kilometers north of Tapachula, where thousands of Haitians have recently arrived. President López Obrador was en route to Tapachula when the confrontation occurred, and the authorities’ actions appeared to be at least partially motivated by a desire to avoid an encounter between the head of state and the migrant caravan.
La brutal cacería del @INAMI_mx y la @GN_MEXICO_ contra los migrantes que huyeron de su país y de #Tapachula en el sur de #Mexico donde les encarcelan sin acceso a documentos ni a trabajos. La #CaravanaMigrante ha mermado pero avanza hacia el norte 1/1 pic.twitter.com/WLGGCRLYRo
— Benjamin Alfaro (@Tapabav) August 29, 2021
Amid the commotion, a Haitian girl was injured by a stone that hit her in the head, the newspaper El Universal reported. Some of the migrants had been hurling stones at the GN troops and INM agents in an effort to free those who had been detained.
Hundreds of migrants who avoided detention broke through a military checkpoint on Saturday evening and continued their northward journey.
Most migrants are desperate to leave Tapachula, where they have few, if any, employment options and are forced to spend long periods living in shelters, cheap hotels or on the street as they wait for authorities to assess their asylum claims. Due to high demand, the Mexican Refugee Assistance Commission (Comar) is taking up to a year to assess those claims, leaving many asylum seekers effectively stranded in Tapachula, a migrant hub due to its location just north of the border with Guatemala.
Comar is supposed to process claims within three months but budget and staffing cuts amid a surge of migrants has made that all but impossible.
“The important thing is not to cross the border [to the United States] but to leave Tapachula to look for work somewhere else,” a Haitian woman told the newspaper El País.
“There’s no work in Chiapas, … there’s no way to live [with dignity], the people are treating us like animals. We are refugees, what we are seeking is … to be able to eat.”
It was that kind of desperation that induced hundreds of migrants to flee the city on foot Saturday knowing full well that they were unlikely to be given free passage by a government that has sought to appease the United States by cracking down on irregular migration.
The INM on Sunday condemned the actions of its agents against the migrants and said it had referred the matter to its internal control body. The agents’ conduct was “inappropriate” and violated “the protocols and policies of respect the institute promotes,” it said in a statement.
“… One migrant started to hit a federal immigration agent and two elements consequently went to assist him, assuming … inappropriate conduct in their intervention,” the INM added.
COMDHSM, a collective of some 200 human rights organizations, also condemned the authorities’ use of force, describing their conduct as excessive and unjustified.
The migrants were “attacked, subjugated and beaten with shields and clubs,” it said, adding that INM agents dressed in civilian clothing incited the violence.
López Obrador said Sunday that the federal government would continue to “contain the northward flow of migrants” – there are thousands of federal security force members deployed across the southern border region – before adding that authorities also have a responsibility to help them and seek a solution to the issues they face.
“The United States has to provide scholarships and allow temporary work visas for Central Americans,” he said at an event in Chiapas.
“This doesn’t affect them at all because labor is needed in the United States and in Canada. They don’t have [a sufficient] workforce and have an older population. How will [the United States] grow if there’s no workforce?”
López Obrador said earlier this year that the United States should issue temporary visas to Central Americans who worked in an expanded version of a tree planting employment scheme called Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life). But the United States showed little interest in the proposal.
United States President Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, along with ongoing insecurity and poverty in Central America, have contributed to a surge in migration to the United States this year. A monthly record of more than 212,000 would-be asylum seekers were detained by U.S. authorities after illegally crossing the border in July.
Biden has sought to wind back some of his predecessor’s harshest immigration policies but the United States Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the U.S. government to reinstate the so-called remain in Mexico policy that forces migrants to stay here as they await the outcome of their asylum claims.
A recent study by the human rights organization Human Rights First found that the U.S government is placing asylum seekers in “grave danger” by expelling them from the country, while the Biden administration has reportedly urged Mexico to clear makeshift migrant camps in northern border cities where expelled asylum seekers often end up.