Photo: Sarahi Reyes, 30, smiles at her daughters, Evelin Moncarda-Reyes, 13, and Mia Cartagena-Reyes, 3, from a kitchen near Albergue Belén in Tapachula, Mexico
Each night, Eduardo Rojas sleeps on flattened cardboard boxes over sand-colored dirt in this city of 350,000 near the border with Guatemala.
He has been sleeping in Parque Bicentenario for more than six weeks as he waits to continue on his journey north to seek asylum in the U.S.
Rojas, 21, who’s from Venezuela, said the park is better than staying at an uncomfortable shelter where there are rules about coming and going. And renting a place is not an option.
“We don’t have money. What I had, I spent,” he said. “So I have to stay here in the streets because here there’s no work, there’s nothing.”
Rojas is traveling with fellow Venezuelans he met crossing the dangerous Darién Gap, a wild and lawless stretch of jungle that straddles the border of Colombia and Panama. All had similar stories about why they left home to seek their American dream: There’s no future in Venezuela.
For them and tens of thousands of migrants from all over the globe who’ve passed through Tapachula in recent years, it’s supposed to be a temporary stop. They never expected to stay long, never thought they’d have to find shelter here for weeks or even months. And Tapachula, an old city in a state that is among Mexico’s poorest, never expected to have to house them.
The city of more than 350,000 permanent residents is only about 20 miles from the Guatemala border, and it has a long history as a gateway to Mexico and the United States. Nearly 90,000 people applied for asylum in Tapachula in 2021, a status that would allow them to receive public benefits and either settle in Mexico or continue heading north. Joining the stream of humanity are tens of thousands of migrants intent on reaching the U.S. or Canada.
Nearly 60% of Tapachula residents lived in poverty in 2020, and 60,000 lived in extreme poverty, according to a 2020 government report. The city has difficulty supporting its own residents, let alone migrants seeking basic care.
“Be aware that Tapachula was a city that was poor, that was forgotten, that was behind with respect to many things before the migrant crisis” began in 2019, said Yamel Athie a psychologist and activist for Yo Te Cuido Tapachula (I Take Care of You Tapachula), an aid group that serves the poor regardless of migratory status.
Considering the dire situation, why must migrants stay in Tapachula?
There is a simple answer: asylum applicants are required to stay in the city where they’ve applied. Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR – the government agency that handles migrant cases – has been overwhelmed with applicants and Tapachula’s housing market has reflected those waves.
In 2021, Mexico reached a record high of more than 130,000 people applying for asylum. In December that led to major housing concerns in Tapachula, where the bulk of the applications were filed. There were reports of people renting roofs and patios, overwhelmed shelters, and thousands of people living at the city’s Olympic Stadium in unsanitary conditions.
“We’ve never lived what we’re living through now,” Athie said. “It’s just that Tapachula is like the house of a low-income family who, from one day to the next, is obligated to open its doors for a whole community.”
In the first three months of 2022, 65% of applications seeking asylum in Mexico were filed in Tapachula – 19,288 people, according to COMAR.
Government funding to help migrants is inadequate to keep up with the steady influx. Adding to the lack of resources, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced in February 2019, that his government would no longer fund nonprofit NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Mexico, which severely limited the scope of work that local humanitarian groups could provide to migrants.
UNHCR, UNICEF, Jesuit Refugee Services, Médecins du Monde and other international organizations are working to fill gaps in providing necessary services to migrants. Access to health services, legal guidance, toiletries, wash stations, food and water are just some of the needs NGOs are working to meet.
UNICEF, for example, set up a few hand washing and shower stations in Tapachula, and it provides toiletry bags to shelters with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and other necessities for migrants.
But the most difficult challenge could be providing places for migrants, including many families with children, to live. In Tapachula, local shelters are crucial to providing free food and housing for migrants who must stay in the city as they await the next steps of their migration. But there are only a few shelters.
Migrants who live in Parque Bicentenario must rely on a few water taps city officials periodically turns on and off, and jerry-rigged electrical lines to charge their cellphones.
“Between the international community and projects that we have in mind,” said Roberto Fuentes, the general secretary of the Tapachula General Council, a local government body, on the migrants living on the streets, “we have tried to channel this to other institutions that can support them (migrants) and keep them moving. But in the street we cannot do anything for them.”
Migrants have dramatically reshaped Parque Bicentenario. On Google Maps, a snapshot from August 2012 shows a park with green grass, shorter trees and a roofed area on one side that includes 15-foot-tall kiosks for small businesses. Visitors could sit at round tables and benches near the shops to relax and enjoy the tranquility.
Nearly 10 years later, some of the kiosks are gone and those that remain are empty, supplanted by tents where migrant families sleep. These families, many with small children, congregate under the roof. In other areas of the park, adults sleep under trees that have grown wide enough to offer some protection from the sun and sometimes the rain. Some sleep on the benches, others lean against the walls of an adjacent cathedral.
The park offers one protection – freedom to move in a place where local officials usually don’t detain them.
Migrants with money might be able to afford a place to rent. Others choose to stay at shelters that offer a roof, some food and additional services, but their daily movement can be monitored and often is limited.
Life at the shelters
Tapachula has three shelters specifically intended for migrants: Albergue Belén, Jesús el Buen Pastor and Hospitalidad y Solidaridad. The shelters offer varying levels of services and accommodations, but residents often have less freedom to come and go.
Also available are Albergue Ejercito de Salvacion A.C. and two shelters that collaborate with DIF, which is Mexico’s child and family protection agency: Albergue Infantil la Esperanza and the Albergue Temporal Para Menores Migrantes. Unaccompanied minors are placed at shelters run by DIF.
This shelter, on the northeast side of Tapachula, is reserved for families with children. It’s run by the local Roman Catholic diocese of the same name, although it was previously administered by the Catholic Scalabrini order, which assists migrants.
In 2021, Belén started turning away single men because of concerns about the safety of children. It does not take in unaccompanied children, who are transferred to DIF’s shelters.
In March, 350 people were at the shelter, 140 of whom were children. Belén can house up to 600 migrants, but when the population exceeds 400, accommodations become less comfortable, said the shelter’s main administrator, Juan Carlos Cañaveral.
The shelter employs 15 people full time and provides a small school, psychological services, a general-practice doctor, a kitchen run by the migrant residents, 24-hour security and lawyers. For the most part, many of the migrants’ basic needs are taken care of on the premises, Cañaveral said, and as such, the shelter has a “semi-open door policy.”
“Yes, they can leave, but only to do their (documentation) procedures, to the store, to do some personal activities,” Cañaveral said, adding that the decision was made by the diocese out of safety concerns voiced by neighbors. “But the majority of the time, the people are staying here 24 hours.”
Albergue Belén’s sleeping quarters are separated by gender. LGBTQ+ migrants are assigned rooms within one wing of the main campus. Beds are limited, and when Cronkite News visited in March, about 200 guests were using sleeping pads.
Kionmy Garcia, 39, from Maracay, Venezuela, had arrived at the shelter two nights earlier with his two sons, 11 and 13. Together they slept on a pad near an open-air chapel on the men’s side of the shelter.
Garcia intended to go to COMAR the next day to fill out his paperwork.
Migrants staying at the shelter can stay as long as needed if they apply for asylum through COMAR within the first three days of their arrival. Otherwise, they can only stay three days and two nights, but some have stayed as long as six months, Cañaveral said.
Of the three migrant shelters, this one provides the most robust services, though Cañaveral noted it needs a pediatrician, food that fulfills the nutritional needs of small children and more beds.
Garcia, sitting on a plastic chair next to his sons, said he misses the food from Venezuela. He said he hadn’t stayed in many shelters along the way, and the previous three weeks he stayed in the parks with his sons. But to get beyond Tapachula, he, like so many others, has to apply for asylum with COMAR and then wait for his request to be processed.
“If I could advance, the rest is nothing,” Garcia said of the journey ahead.
Garcia, who came through Colombia, the Darién Gap and Central America, now waits for this clearance so he can finally reach the U.S.
The choice to leave Venezuela was his; the choice to leave Tapachula is out of his hands for now.
Jesús el Buen Pastor
Near the southwestern outskirts of the city is Jesús el Buen Pastor, one of the longest-running shelters for migrants in Tapachula. Close to the shelter’s bright blue entrance is a life-size statue of Jesus Christ, which juts from the wall and is caged in metal bars and wire. People mill about the entrance, which is always guarded.
Buen Pastor has a capacity of 800, but about 1,000 people are staying there, said Herbert Bermudez, a migrant from El Salvador who has been at the shelter for nearly a year and assumed a leadership role.
Founded in the 1990s by Olga Sanchez, Buen Pastor originally was a shelter for migrants who’d been injured on La Bestia, a train that once bisected Tapachula and tempted many migrants to hitch a free but dangerous ride north.
During the day, guests are allowed to leave and return only once – and many choose to leave. But as dinner time approaches, the passageways swell with guests waiting for their free bowl of black beans before they retire for the night behind the shelter’s locked door on the mats on the tile floor.
In El Salvador, Bermudez said, he owned a construction company whose success caught the eye of local mareros – gangsters – and he became the target of extortion. He fled north through Guatemala and arrived at Jesús el Buen Pastor at the end of April 2021.
The night Bermudez arrived, he was rained on as he slept on a pad in the open courtyard. He resolved to use his skills to lead construction and remodeling projects at the shelter as payment for his accommodations.
Residents can stay a maximum of three months if they don’t help out at the shelter, and it only has so many jobs to fill. Some residents monitor the comings and goings of other guests. Some tend to the kitchen. Others help gather and break down firewood. Some join Bermudez to work on construction projects.
“I’m constructing with the idea that this place will have more space for women and children,” Bermudez said. “It’s been days since I started it, but the funds ran out and that’s where it’s stopped.”
He estimates that the shelter, which primarily relies on donations, will need 150,000 to 200,000 pesos – about $7,500 to $10,000 – to finish a second floor.
“Sometimes we arrive at the point where we don’t have enough (money) for the flour to make the tortillas for the people,” he said.
The water well they rely on is running dry and water needs to be rationed. Propane is expensive, so guests use firewood to cook food in an open-air kitchen near the back of the shelter.
Bermudez wants to add a mini hospital to provide better medical care.
“But they’re only plans, right, because money first. That’s the most important,” he said. “It would be a dream come true.”
Two medics are available full time Monday through Friday to address health needs. For education, Buen Pastor offers two-hour classes three days a week.
Migrants who previously stayed there complained about the crowding and poor food. They also objected to being expected to buy goods from the on-site store, which made no sense for those without money or work permits.
The Escobar-Rivas family from Honduras stayed at Jesús el Buen Pastor their first three nights in Tapachula. They stay at Parque Bicentenario now.
Juan José Escobar, 43, said the family left the shelter because of questions about their kids’ safety there. He and his wife, Kenia Rivas, 33, have four children, ages 4, 6, 8 and 10. They motivate him to keep living in the park and to patiently wait for their paperwork to be processed.
“It’s for the children. For oneself, you cannot, you’re too old,” Escobar said. “But you make the effort so that they have – that they will experience other new things tomorrow. So that they can have a good education to move forward. That’s why you do it. Because, more than anything, it’s for the children.”
Hospitalidad y Solidaridad, A.C.
On the road toward the airport, about a 10-minute car ride south of town, lies Hospitalidad y Solidaridad A.C., the newest shelter for migrants in Tapachula.
Accel Emadiel Ruiz Mencias, 18, from Honduras, was staying at Hospitalidad y Solidaridad with his mother, siblings and aunt.
“It’s very comfortable to be here. The beds are also good,” said Ruiz Mencias, leaning against a plastic chair with his legs spread out and his hands folded between. His feet were halfway into faded black Puma slides.
He said his family fled Honduras after gang members threatened them multiple times, including dumping a corpse at their home.
Since arriving in Tapachula, they have lived in multiple spaces in the eight months: first on the streets, one night at the main immigration detention center, a stint at Jesús el Buen Pastor and a month in a rented house, thanks to aid from UNHCR.
Now they’re at Hospitalidad y Solidaridad, which has a capacity of 300, with separate housing for men, women and children, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Most remain about 45 days, but some have stayed as long as six months. Migrants must be actively seeking asylum, said Angélica González, head of liaison and advocacy coordination for the shelter.
“It’s calm, and not (just) any person enters,” Ruiz Mencias said.
UNHCR provided the family with a card to help pay for one month’s rent plus food as they awaited the answer to their asylum application. When the card ran out, they asked UNHCR for more help.
“They told us that they couldn’t help us, and there were shelters where we could go to,” Ruiz Mencias said. “So, we thought hard about it and asked around to see which was the best. Because this one is the best. And they told us this one. And well, here is really nice. I like it.”
Guests can come and go as they please, but Ruiz Mencias prefers to stay in.
Each person is assigned to a team that assists with upkeep, which includes cooking, serving food and cleaning the grounds. Ruiz Mencias wakes up at 7 a.m. to clean the men’s restrooms and his own room. After breakfast, the team cleans the school, theater and one other building before lunch. He enjoys having things to do.
He goes to school, which also keeps him happily occupied.
Classes are divided into four age groups, with each group receiving six hours of instruction per week from one instructor.
“When the children leave, we give them a certificate that does not have official validity,” said Fernanda Acevedo, who oversees the general coordination of the shelter. “But it has worked so that when the children leave the shelter, in certain cases the professors call us and (we say) ‘Oh, they took so many hours on this project.’ So, yes, it has helped.”
As of March, Ruiz Mencias and his family’s asylum and residency had been approved. They were planning to leave within a few weeks, but the plans weren’t solidified.
The family never wanted to leave Honduras; they weren’t wealthy but they had enough to live. When they settle in their next place, Ruiz Mencias hopes to go back to school, get a job and help his mom out with the bills.
“Arriving here in Mexico is like starting over from zero. But it’s done. We have to continue now,” he said.
Money determines who rents space in Tapachula.
In December 2021, rumors swirled of migrants paying upwards of 1,000 pesos for a single space in a crowded room, and renting backyard patios or even rooftops.
“The people rented their rooftops,” said Athie, the community activist. “People paid to live on the rooftops. And they covered it with nothing more than plastic. The people charged for that.”
For most migrants, money is scarce, which has led many to peddle a range of items on the streets. Other migrants have family or friends back home who can send them money.
In some instances, UNHCR will pay rent for migrants, but the UNHCR spokesperson in Tapachula, Pierre-Marc René, did not confirm how much, how frequently and what criteria are used to provide rent assistance.
In March, migrants in Tapachula were paying about 2,000 pesos (roughly $100 dollars) a month for a room in a two-bedroom apartment.
The city government has some role in regulating shelters and government-run accommodations, but it has no authority over the private housing market.
“Private accommodation both in hotels and houses … is regulated in the dealings that homeowners have with the same migrants,” said Fuentes of the Tapachula General Council.
On posts and in front of modest houses across the city, homemade signs advertise rooms and apartments for rent.
Some of these spaces are referred to as cuarterillas.
“They are places where they rent rooms,” said Acevedo from Hospitalidad y Solidaridad. “Many times they rent, say it’s a room of 10 people, and for each person they charge 1,000 pesos. It’s not for the room, rather it’s per person.”
Jocelito Laporte, a gay man who left Haiti because he feared for his safety, lives in Las Vegas, a neighborhood not far from the Instituto Nacional de Migración on the city’s west side.
Laporte is a devout Christian who realized that his family and greater community could not accept him for who he is. From Haiti, he went to Argentina, then to Brazil. He arrived in Tapachula on Oct. 14, 2021, after traversing the Darién Gap.
Laporte stayed about a week with a family member of a friend he met in the jungle, then found a room to rent in a neighborhood called Rosario. He arrived as the city swelled with migrants and housing costs skyrocketed. He said he first rented a space for 3,000 pesos a month in a room shared by five people. He slept on a green blanket folded on the floor.
From there, he shared a room with one other person and paid 2,500 pesos per month. He slept on that same green blanket.
In mid-March, Laporte was living in a two-bedroom apartment with a fellow Haitian migrant who doesn’t know about his sexuality. He pays about 2,000 pesos a month for a single room plus utilities, 500 pesos less than the previous place.
It has a bed – his first since he arrived in Tapachula five months before.
“This is a phase of my life,” said Laporte, who turned to prostitution to make ends meet.
“It’s very sad. This bothers me a lot to do something with someone that never in my life I could believe would happen,” he said. “But, for the money, (and) out of necessity I need to do some things that are horrible, horrible, you know?”
By mid-April, Laporte had left Tapachula for Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico, where he works as a waiter and rents a room for 2,500 pesos – 500 more than what he last paid for in Tapachula.
He said he’s happy in Aguascalientes and could stay there for a while, but his dream is to go to the United States.
He is confronted, yet again, with the choice of leaving or staying. This time, however, the circumstances are not as urgent as when he left Haiti. In Aguascalientes he can be open about his sexuality and he has a steady income. Plus, he has the legal documentation that allows him to work and stay in Mexico.
And if he does leave Aguascalientes for the U.S., he’ll face yet another formidable challenge: the U.S. immigration system.
(Photo by Jennifer Sawhney/Cronkite Borderlands Project)