Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN, July 14, 2012
Neighbors on this tiny, sun-soaked street know each other’s names. They pray together at a church with stained-glass windows that they can see from their front steps.
But for years, they say, immigrants have been pushing their community apart.
Residents here say they stopped feeling safe when strangers started lingering on street corners and leering at locals. They created neighborhood watch patrols to keep crime in check.
“It’s not that we’re against immigrants,” Osvaldo Espinosa says. “We just want them to get rid of that house.”
It’s the kind of complaint heard often these days in small-town America or on blocks in big U.S. cities struggling with a flood of foreign residents.
But this house is in Mexico, where activists warn that fierce anti-immigrant sentiment in some places has become just as strong as it is north of the border.
More than 100 immigrants from Central America arrive daily in Lecheria, this working-class neighborhood outside the country’s capital. Most are Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who don’t stay long; they are stowaways on cargo trains heading north to the United States.
But for more than three years, many of them have stopped on Espinosa’s street for warm meals and a few nights’ sleep at an immigrant shelter. It is one of dozens in Mexico run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Priests said the Casa del Migrante — the immigrant’s house — was a safe haven for vulnerable people on an increasingly perilous journey.
Residents told public officials, reporters and police that people living near the shelter were the ones who were in danger.
Criminals regularly target thousands of migrants passing through Mexico, according to Amnesty International, which noted in a report last year that immigrants face “serious abuses from organized criminal gangs, including kidnappings, threats and assaults.”
Authorities found the bodies of 72 slain immigrants from Central and South America on an abandoned ranch near the Mexico-U.S. border in August 2010. That year, more than 11,000 immigrants were kidnapped nationwide, according to an investigation by Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights.
But despite the dangers, the flood of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico is showing no sign of slowing.
In a year’s time, the number of Central American immigrants coming to the shelter more than doubled to a daily average of 150, he said. About 90% hailed from Honduras, which faces widespread poverty and the world’s highest murder rate, according to the United Nations.
Last August, a 19-year-old Guatemalan immigrant’s body was found beside the train tracks near the shelter, which he had left just a few days before. Bruises covered his face, indicating he had been stoned to death, witnesses said. Rumors and allegations flew about who was behind the attack.
Days later, dozens of angry neighbors blocked the door of the shelter in a six-hour standoff. Some threatened to burn down the building. Others chanted: “Immigrants, get out.”
When authorities wouldn’t shut down the shelter after months of complaints, the neighbors decided to take matters into their own hands
“We came to symbolically close the shelter,” said Jesus Mendez Morales, a 47-year-old construction worker who lives nearby. Neighbors blocked the door, preventing immigrants inside — who had planned a candlelight vigil in honor of the slain 19-year-old — from leaving.
Martha Morales said that time and time again, immigrants have blocked her doorway, slept on the sidewalk and urinated in the street in front of her house.
“We are afraid now to go out at night. We are imprisoned in our own homes,” she said.
The neighborhood’s protests drew attention from human rights activists, who said xenophobic anti-immigrant fears were fueling their rage.
Residents said it was unfair to label them racists.
“There’s a lot of focus now on the immigrant. They don’t focus on us now, the Mexicans. What happened to our rights?” said Justino Espinoza, a 64-year-old retired boxer.
Signs of immigrants in the neighborhood are clear, said Mercedes Lopez Gonzalez. They litter the streets with clothes, plastic bags and cans of beans, she said, and crime is on the rise.
Last Saturday, local police fired gunshots into the air to break up a massive brawl.
Clashes started, church officials said, after trucks bringing food to the immigrants blocked the entrance to a resident’s house. Immigrants jeered when the resident complained. And a verbal altercation quickly spiraled into a physical fight. One truck driver clubbed a resident with an ax.
“It’s understandable that the neighbors didn’t stand there with their arms crossed. They also started to attack, throwing stones and sticks,” Rojas told reporters. “They threw a woman to the ground and kicked her.”
Two days later, Rojas and other church officials wrote signs with magic marker on neon poster board, and tacked them beside the cross at the shelter’s front entrance.
“Casa del Migrante ‘closed.’ Immigrant friend, continue your journey.”
Immigrant rights advocates described it as a significant setback, warning that long-simmering xenophobia toward Central American immigrants in the area had reached a boiling point.
“They face racial discrimination and social exclusion,” Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission said in a statement.
“Mexico is repeating the immigration policy of the United States. If we don’t look at ourselves critically, we could fall into the same trap,” said Raul Vera Lopez, a Catholic bishop in the northern city of Saltillo, according to Mexico’s state-run Notimex news agency.
On Wednesday, Rojas described the shelter shutdown as “a momentary situation.” Church and government officials are searching for a new location, he said.
Down the street, Justino Espinoza planted a white plastic lawn chair in front of his house. It was the first time in years, the 64-year-old said, that he had the chance to sunbathe without a Central American immigrant begging him for money or food.