Perils En Route to US Mean More Central Americans Now Pin Hopes on Mexico

Lauren Villegran, Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 2013

Long an advocate for immigrant rights in the US, Mexico is increasingly following its northern neighbor’s footsteps, opting for apprehensions and heightened security along its southern border. It’s there that hundreds of Central American migrants begin the treacherous journey north – a route that has become so risky that increasing numbers are choosing to try their luck in Mexico.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s promises to strengthen security at the country’s historically porous southern boundary came into focus last week with the announcement that the Marines will coordinate border security at the more than 620-mile border with Guatemala and Belize.

The route to el norte, the United States, is more dangerous and costly than ever. Over the past eight months, rights workers say criminals associated with Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel have taken control of the freight train route from Tabasco at the southern border to Tamaulipas in the north, the crossing point to the United States. Migrants face robbery, extortion, kidnapping, and death threats. Just last week the National Migration Institute said it rescued 165 migrants allegedly being held in Tamaulipas.

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Rights workers say a 2011 immigration law designed to protect migrants’ rights – passed after a massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas came to light – places what amount to insurmountable obstacles for most Central Americans to obtain transit documents or work visas here.

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Of the migrants who stay, many are doing jobs locals don’t want to do. In northern Mexico, Central American migrants are working in cleaning services, in markets stocking fruit and vegetables, in carpentry, and in catering, says José Luis Manzo of the Casa del Migrante Saltillo in Coahuila.

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US Border Patrol apprehensions of undocumented Mexicans at the southwest border have fallen steadily from nearly 1 million in fiscal year 2004 to about 262,341 in 2012. The number of people from countries other than Mexico picked up on the same border – the majority from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – climbed 43 percent over the same period, to more than 94,532 last year.

The ailing US economy helped discourage Mexicans from heading north in recent years, but analysts say it’s more than that. A fundamental demographic shift – specifically a fertility rate that has fallen from more than seven children per family in the 1960s to just two today – means that Mexico has likely seen its last demographic bubble. The next generation of young people will be smaller than the current generation. Mexico’s job market, seen as improving along with a growing economy, won’t have to satisfy outsized demand for job opportunities.

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But the same doesn’t hold true for Guatemala and Honduras, where fertility rates are still high and the populations are younger. Both countries, along with El Salvador, are plagued by violence and extreme poverty that drive people to seek opportunity elsewhere, even if it means taking a treacherous journey north.

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“There is so much violence in Guatemala, too much violence,” says Manuel, the young man who stopped his journey short of the US. “A lot of organized crime. It’s here, too, but there is more opportunity.”

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Under the current law, migrants may apply to reside legally in Mexico by marrying a local or having children here. Minors and refugees are also eligible for visas. But a proven job offer is no longer a path to legal residency as it was under the previous system.

“I want to be legal, and I’m trying,” Manuel says. “Here they treat us like garbage. They don’t see us as people.”

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In announcing the Marines’ role in securing the southern border, Interior Ministor Miguel Osorio Chong said one thing Mexico will not do is build a border wall. Public policies will center on providing attention to migrants, and controlling the border. The idea, he said, is to help migrants to “prevent that they suffer or that they have any problem in our country.”

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