migrant caravan
The migrant caravan.(Image: International Organisation of Migration/Rafael Rodríguez)

Thousands of migrants began walking from Central America, through Mexico, in the so called “migrant caravan”, in a quest to gain safety and security in the US. Their journey soon became a flashpoint. They were welcomed and accommodated in tiny pueblos (towns) like Santiago Niltepec in Oaxaca state and in the megalopolis of Mexico City, and verbally abused and tear-gassed in Tijuana. Their story, exploited by Donald Trump before the November mid-terms powerfully demonstrates the tensions, failures, and potential of current global migration policy.

Day and night

After the caravan’s arrival to Mexico City, I spoke with some of the men, women and children who were being accommodated in the sports stadium to the west of the city centre. One man, 38-year-old Henry Vargas Portillo, from Guatemala, told me that he planned to stay in Mexico City instead of heading for the US border. “Here in Mexico the people have behaved so well towards us. They’ve given us something to eat and a place to sleep, and many people have donated money.”

The city government provided advice, medicines, clothing, food and (very basic) accommodation, while throughout the city there were solicitations for donations of things the migrants need for their journey. The traditional Day of the Dead ofrenda (decorated altar) in the central square was dedicated to migrants, and, as the caravan made its way out of the city, the governor of Queretaro, the state they were bound for, told media that they were ready to receive the migrants, and urged his constituents to “walk together” with the travellers and respect their rights.

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Mexico’s long history of out-migration was frequently referenced by politicians and community groups alike. “Somos todos migrantes”, read one poster; “help our migrant brothers and sisters” read another. The message was strong: migration is a human right, it is our obligation to show solidarity and respect to the migrants coming through our town, and we must ask others to do the same.

What was also remarkable is that this support and assistance was offered by many people who have very little. The indigenous pueblo of Juchitán, where locals set up a solar-powered cinema in the town square and showed kids films on a massive, inflatable screen, is still rebuilding from the devastation of last year’s earthquake. In the week the migrants arrived, Mexico City was in the middle of an acute water shortage. Before their arrival the city governor, José Ramón Amieva, announced that the migrants would not be disadvantaged by the water shortage. “We will provide the supplies, food and water necessary to help them,” he said.

While there are many in Tijuana who share this philosophy and have been acting accordingly, the arrival of the caravan to the border city continues, by contrast, to be marked by instances of verbal abuse and harassment on the beach, anti-migrant rallies, and a heavy local police presence. Tijuana mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum has called on authorities to “arrest the caravan organisers”, adding that he is “not spending a penny more to shelter migrants”. At the end of November, from the other side of the border, US border protection police launched tear gas canisters at migrants. Neither adults nor small children were spared the effects.

Why the difference?

There are confirmed reports that pro-Nazi organisers helped to agitate for the protests against the migrants in Tijuana, primarily via a Facebook group called “Primero Mexico/Mexico First”. Others defended their actions as protecting their country and had their message subsequently amplified in media like Fox News and Russia Today. 

In 2018, the city has also been facing record levels of violence and is neither safe from police and government corruption. Many Central Americans such as those in the caravan have long faced racism from some Mexicans and these tropes were again rehearsed in the protests in Tijuana. And of course there is pressure on Mexico from the USA — which is just steps away from Tijuana — to keep the numbers that cross over to a minimum, or, better yet, to ensure that all migrants from the caravan are turned away.

Such differences between the reception of migrants (e.g. those between Mexico City and Tijuana) reflect the current international crisis of border control and migrants in need.

Migrants’ rights

The international right to protection that was enshrined after World War II has been slowly eroded since the 1980s; making asylum a scarce good that rich countries like the US, Australia, and those of the EU have been empowered to dole out according to political expedience. Increasingly, migrants are asked to prove their worth and innocence. 

What I saw in Mexico City was different. Whether or not anybody deserved to be welcomed and cared for was a moot point. The unconditional response of a large part of the city, led by the city government, showed me that, when migration is treated as a human right without qualification, there is little need for national worry. Instead, food, shelter and other forms of basic care are organised, donations are corralled from the public, and migrants are wished the best for their journey, no matter what their reasons are for it. Many are invited to stay more permanently and they take up the offer.

What if this response was to be a global standard, a re-building of the right to protection and the fact of migration? Would the international order implode, or could national life simply go on? The pragmatically kind reception of the migrants in many parts of Mexico strongly suggests the latter is possible. And as the crisis of border control only deepens across the planet, causing extraordinary suffering to so many who migrate, it may just be worth a try.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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