TAPACHULA – Caribe Dorvil wakes up at 3 a.m. each day to prepare food to sell in a small street market with dozens of other Haitian migrants in this southern Mexican city.
Unable to find other work because they still lack legal status, Dorvil and Haitian migrants sell meals, soft drinks, clothing and offer services such as haircuts, manicures and tailoring under umbrellas in the street market.
Dorvil has requested asylum in Mexico, but the agency processing such requests is deeply backed up and has not had enough resources to deal with the exponential growth in asylum claims in recent years.
A couple years ago, migrants such as Dorvil might have quickly passed through Tapachula, historically a stop on one of the main migrant routes north. But more recently it has become a Kafkaesque quagmire of bureaucracy without exit for thousands.
The growing frustration led hundreds of migrants to walk out of Tapachula this month and attempt to travel north. Mexican authorities stopped them each time, sometimes violently. Another attempted caravan has been rumored for this week.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Mexico with tariffs if it did not slow the flow of migrants to the U.S. border. Mexico responded by deploying its National Guard and more immigration agents to try to contain migrants in the south.
Facing daily images of Mexican authorities clashing with migrants, many travelling as families, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has showed his own frustration with the containment strategy and said it was not sustainable.
On a recent morning, Dorvil prepared spaghetti with chicken and a small side salad, which she sold for about $2 in the market. Her usual 10-hour workday typically earns her $5 to $10.
That covers her rent — an apartment south of Tapachula she shares with nine other migrants — and just enough food to keep her going.
“You can’t work (here), there are no papers, there is nothing,” Dorvil said. “You have to sell to pay rent, to eat. The government doesn’t help anyone.”
Dorvil arrived in Mexico early this year. Like many of the Haitian migrants, she had lived in Chile for years after leaving her own country, but set out when the economy stalled there during the pandemic.
She thought things would be better in Mexico, but now says it is worse. Her husband and their two children remain in Chile, but have been thinking of joining her in Mexico, which is why she has not joined any of the groups trying to leave Tapachula.
Dorvil has an initial appointment scheduled for her asylum request in mid-November. But the system is overwhelmed with applications and it’s not unusual for someone to wait a year for their case to be processed.
The system was already behind and the pandemic slowed things even more. So far this year, more than 77,000 people have applied for protected status in Mexico, 55,000 of those in Tapachula. Haitians account for about 19,000 of those applicants.
Some in the Mexican government have proposed giving Haitians — the second largest migrant group behind Hondurans — an option that would let them seek work outside the state of Chiapas, where Tapachula is located. But opposition remains.
Activist Luis Villagrán of the Center for Human Dignity estimates there could be as many as 100,000 migrants stuck in Tapachula, nearly one for every three of the city’s residents. They are visible all over the city, though other groups estimate half that number.
Even for those who succeed in getting some legal status, Tapachula can seem inescapable.
Another Haitian migrant, who declined to give his name to avoid repercussions, showed a humanitarian visa he had obtained in Tapachula. With that in hand, he travelled north to the state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. But there a Mexican immigration agent stopped him and told him it was not valid. He was sent back to Tapachula.
“I’ve had this (visa) for a year and they sent me back here, I don’t know why,” he said during a recent protest against Mexico’s immigration and asylum agencies to demand that migrants be allowed to travel freely.
Enrique Vidal, coordinator for Fray Matias de Cordoba Human Rights Center in Tapachula, said the policy of containment and the militarization of that policy has collapsed the immigration system.
“We have seen in recent days these massive mobilizations trying to leave Tapachula,” Vidal said. “They are all people who have started some process with Mexican authorities and it is the Mexican authorities who have not followed through in guaranteeing a respectful and timely access for the people.”