Mexico attracts more asylum seekers despite gruesome violence
TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Albert Rivera is well aware of how dangerous Mexico can be: He sometimes wears a bulletproof vest around a complex of bright yellow buildings he built in one of the country’s largest migrant shelters.
More evidence is stored on his phone in the form of heartbreaking videos sent by gangs to migrants to warn of the consequences of not complying. Depictions include severed limbs thrown into a pile, a decapitated head thrown into a barrel of smoking liquid, and a woman writhing as her head is sawed off.
But across town from Agape Mision Mundial, many migrants are grateful for the opportunity to settle here. This is where the Mexican asylum office meets foreigners who find the border city of Tijuana a relatively safe place to live with an abundance of jobs.
The stark contrast speaks to Mexico’s controversial status. This is a country where violence and inequality are driving many people to seek a better life in the United States. For others, it offers a measure of peace and prosperity beyond what is available in their homeland.
Mexico’s safe and secure asylum system eases pressure on the United States, which is turning more to other governments to manage migration. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday upheld pandemic-era shelter restrictions for now.
In 2021, Mexico was the third most popular destination in the world for asylum seekers, after the US and Germany, according to the UN. It is approaching the end of the year just below a record high of 131,400 asylum applications in 2021, primarily from Hondurans, Cubans and Haitians.
Juan Pablo Sanchez, 24, has followed others who have left Colombia in the past two years after financial difficulties as a cultural organizer.
For him, Tijuana is a better option than the US. He pays $250 a month in rent, much less than his friend, who pays $1,800 for the same apartment in Illinois. Wages in Mexico are lower, but there are many jobs, including in export-oriented manufacturing plants.
Less spending means more money to send a wife and stepson to Pereira, a coffee-growing city in the foothills of the Andes.
“The fruits (of my work) are visible in Colombia,” he said after riding the motorcycle he uses as a courier to the shelter’s office in Tijuana. “Making a living in the United States is unreliable.”
Mexico granted 61% of asylum applications from January to November, including at least 90% of approvals for Hondurans and Venezuelans. Cubans and Haitians are far less successful.
The US grant rate was 46% for the fiscal year ended September 30th. This figure is lower than in Mexico, but higher than 27% two years ago, when the administration of former US President Donald Trump sharply limited assistance to victims of gang violence and domestic violence. Violence, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Mexico abides by the Cartagena Declaration, which promises asylum to anyone threatened by “generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights, or other circumstances seriously disturbing public order.” The US follows a narrower definition that requires a person to be an individual target for limited reasons, as outlined in the UN Refugee Convention.
Mexico’s relatively lavish criteria don’t matter much at Rivera’s orphanage, where the 500 or so guests rarely venture beyond the nearby store. The Puerto Rican pastor grew up in Los Angeles and ran a Tijuana home for recovering drug addicts before converting it into a migrant shelter in 2018. He says gunmen once broke in looking for a woman who was hiding elsewhere.
Maria Rosario Blanco, 41, arrived with her sister and 8-year-old great-nephew who were riding their father’s motorcycle in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa in 2019 when his father was fatally shot by an assailant. Blanco’s nephew was killed a year later while working at his barbershop. The family eventually left when a flood destroyed their home.
Blanco said she was regularly threatened by gangs to kill or kidnap her even after she moved to another part of Honduras and to Palenque in southern Mexico, a city known for its Mayan ruins. She says she won’t feel safe until she gets to the United States, where she hopes to settle down in a Chicago suburb with a man she met through church.
“Gangs are everywhere,” she said, describing concerns about Mexico. She said that Hondurans are easy targets for attackers because of the way they speak.
The Mexican woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said her troubles began when her brother joined the gang at the threat of his family, but they killed him anyway. Her 15-year-old son then joined the gang to save his family. They don’t know where he is, but they got a photo of him with a machine gun.
“The new rule is that people are required to join a gang,” she said. “If you refuse, it doesn’t matter. They will kill you anyway.”
The gang burned down their house in a small village in Michoacán, stole their farmland and threatened to kill the entire family if her husband and 12-year-old son did not join. They are hoping for an exemption from the U.S. asylum ban, which has remained in place for at least a few months under a 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday. In February, the judges will hear arguments on the so-called Section 42 powers, which will remain in effect until they decide the case.
Under Section 42, migrants have been denied asylum 2.5 million times since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Some exceptions are made for those considered particularly vulnerable in Mexico.
Amid expectations that Section 42 was about to end, some supporters expected the Biden administration to revive Trump’s policy – temporarily blocked in court – that denies asylum to non-Mexicans unless they first applied in the country through which they traveled. for example, in Mexico.
Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at the Washington Latin America office, said Mexico could agree to smaller steps, such as tightening controls within its borders or allowing some migrants ordered to leave the United States. Under Section 42, Mexico has accepted migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and, most recently, Venezuela, as well as people from Mexico.
Meyer said while some asylum seekers in Mexico receive permission to move around the country, they generally must remain in the state in which they apply. Seven out of every ten applied in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, where jobs are scarce.
Jobs are plentiful in Tijuana, but the Mexican Refugee Commission’s city office is relatively small. One Venezuelan who visited the office after being expelled from the US under Section 42 said Mexico was “10 times better” than back home.
Migrants arrive tired, said Efren Gonzalez, director of the commission’s office in Tijuana. “They stop and plan their next moves and I think Tijuana is a good place for that.”
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