TAPACHULA, Mexico — The idea was to reach the United States. But when the young Honduran mother arrived in Mexico this summer, with only a handful of pesos and a 4-year-old in tow, she realized how difficult that had become.
And so she came up with a new plan.
“The American Dream is costly, very costly,” lamented Iris, 32, sitting on a curb outside the Mexican refugee office in this southern city. She spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, for fear of harm from gang members in Honduras.
“That’s still the dream. But if they give me Mexican papers, I’ll stay here.”
Iris is one in the soaring number of migrants seeking refuge throughout the Americas. And while the United States remains the world’s top recipient of asylum petitions, countries such as Mexico, with much smaller asylum systems, are seeing far greater increases.
President Donald Trump complains of the sharp rise in applications for asylum in the United States, which more than tripled in seven years to 254,000 in 2018, according to global statistics compiled by the U.N. refugee agency.
But asylum petitions in Mexico shot up more than 3,500 percent over the same period. They could nearly triple this year alone, to about 80,000.
The surge of asylum seekers in the hemisphere stems from a cascade of crises: the implosion of Venezuela, a crackdown on dissidents by the authoritarian government of Nicaragua, and agricultural disasters and gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In Latin America, “we’ve never seen such a large-scale exodus of people fleeing countries in deep political crisis,” said Andrew Selee, head of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
Now, Mexico is dealing with another cause: steps by Trump to tighten the U.S. border, which are driving people to seek alternatives to the United States — and causing a bottleneck to the south.
The change is redefining the way Mexico sees itself. For decades, it was Mexicans who were the ones migrating, typically to the United States. This year, Mexico could become one of the top 10 recipients of asylum applications in the world.
“It’s become more and more a country of destination for Central Americans,” said William Spindler, the Latin America spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Trump administration is hoping to send still more migrants to Latin American countries through agreements that would oblige them to take in the asylum seekers who cross their territories in hopes of reaching the U.S. border. But both Mexico and Panama have balked at signing the “safe third country” accords.
In Panama, like Mexico, asylum applications have surged, reaching 10,778 last year — a ninefold increase in five years, according to the UNHCR. In addition, the country of 4 million is now home to more than 60,000 Venezuelans. Thousands more migrants and asylum seekers have traveled across Panama this year hoping to reach the United States.
“We already have more than enough” migrants, Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo, said last month after meeting with Kevin McAleenan, the United States’s acting secretary of homeland security.
The Mexican city of Tapachula, around 10 miles from the Guatemalan border, offers a glimpse of the drastic change in migrant flows. By 7 o’clock one recent morning, scores of Central Americans, Haitians and West Africans had lined up outside a low-slung, unmarked building. It was the office of the Mexican refugee commission, known by its Spanish initials, COMAR. Around two-thirds of the country’s asylum applications are processed here.
As the migrants rubbed sleep from their eyes, women wandered past hawking baleadas, bean-stuffed tortillas popular in Honduras.
Edwin Edgardo Rivera, 32, a bartender and clothing store employee in Honduras, was among those seeking a new life in Mexico.
He said he fled Honduras after receiving death threats from a gang angered by his refusal to help them collect extortion payments.
He initially thought of heading to the United States. “But it’s very tough,” he said.
That’s partly because Mexico, under U.S. pressure, is detaining and deporting many more unauthorized migrants.
“I saw all the extra military and police,” he said. So he changed plans.
For now, anyway.
“Of course, if I can go north, I will,” he confided with a laugh.
The spike in asylum applications has nearly crushed Mexico’s tiny, cash-strapped refugee commission. Its 2019 budget was slashed 20 percent, to $1.2 million, under a sweeping austerity program introduced by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
COMAR is doing its best, said Andrés Ramírez, head of the refugee commission — but “we are always on the edge, almost collapsing.”
With only 48 officials nationwide authorized to sign off on asylum approvals, the commission managed to process just 5,700 of nearly 30,000 applications last year.
UNHCR has stepped up its assistance, lending over 100 contractors to COMAR. Mexico’s government also recently agreed to provide more staff.
But the number of applicants is expected to continue climbing as the U.S. government takes measures to discourage asylum seekers from arriving. Under a program known as “Remain in Mexico,” the Department of Homeland Security has returned tens of thousands of asylum applicants to violence-plagued Mexican border cities to await hearings scheduled weeks or months later.
Another measure is the recently signed safe third country agreement with Guatemala. If implemented, it could force thousands of asylum seekers who crossed the country to go back there.
Selee predicted that those policies will have wide-ranging effects.
“The more that Central Americans can’t get to the United States, we’re going to see numbers going up” in other nations, including Costa Rica and Panama, he said.
The Trump administration says many asylum applications are bogus, filed by poor, job-seeking migrants who invent stories of persecution to improve their chances of being accepted. Officials say legitimate asylum seekers should seek refuge in the first country they are safe — not travel thousands of miles farther to the United States.
“The asylum program is a scam,” Trump said in April.
In Mexico, some applicants are clearly fleeing low-paying work or dire agricultural conditions — not repression. But many of the claims are seen as legitimate.
Mexico granted more than half of asylum petitions last year. The country recently made it easier for its two biggest groups of applicants — Hondurans and Salvadorans — to gain refugee status.
Under traditional asylum law, they’d have to show they faced persecution for reasons such as their race, religion or political beliefs. Now, Ramírez said, they need only demonstrate that they’re escaping countries with generalized violence or massive violations of human rights.
It’s a broader definition of who is a refugee, drawn from a regional accord known as the Cartagena Declaration. The move reflects countries’ struggles to address nontraditional crises, such as the tightening grip of organized crime groups in Central America.
“In many of the conflicts around the world, where people are fleeing violence, it’s not because of persecution by the state, but because the state can’t protect people,” Selee said.
In the Northern Triangle of Central America, violence is so widespread — and gang rule so pervasive — that many people don’t even realize they might qualify for refugee status, said Kristin Riis Halvorsen, the UNHCR representative in Tapachula.
In initial interviews, she said, they often say they’re leaving their countries for a better job. But on further questioning, they speak of threats and danger.
They suffer “an acute level of stress,” she said. And then: “There’s one thing that finally makes them leave.”
For Iris, a single mother, that one thing was a gang’s demand for $200 a month. She had already changed neighborhoods once to escape threats from another gang, she said. And she was worried about layoffs at her employer, a shrimp-exporting company in southern Honduras.
“I didn’t have enough” to give the extortioners, she said. “They said I’d pay with my life, and the lives of my children.”
She left her four older children with her mother in another part of the country and fled north with her son.
Seeking asylum in Mexico has hardly been easy. Two months into the process, Iris still doesn’t have a work permit. She and her son sleep at an overcrowded migrant shelter in Tapachula, or in a park.
“I’ve suffered a lot, especially being with my child,” she said.
Her son, in shorts and Captain America sneakers, climbed into her lap and smiled. He thrust forward his arm, covered in tiny bumps, for her to see.
“It’s the heat,” his mother said.
Asylum seekers in Mexico are required to remain in the region where they’ve filed their applications until they receive a decision. Most are concentrated in Chiapas, the country’s poorest state, just across the border from Guatemala.
“Every day, more families are arriving,” said Salva Lacruz, coordinator of the Fray Matías de Córdova human-rights organization. “Today, a Salvadoran or Honduran is ready to try and rebuild their lives in Mexico.”
But the situation is worse for citizens from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia and Africa, he said. Many arrived in southern Mexico planning to get a document that gives unauthorized migrants 20 days to leave the country — enough time to reach the U.S. border. In an abrupt change, Mexican authorities in July started to only allow such migrants to depart via Guatemalan border.
An increasing number of such foreigners are effectively trapped in Tapachula, with little money and no desire to stay in Mexico.
“In the case of Honduras and El Salvador, the situation has dramatic overtones. But with these people, there are overtones of tragedy and a brutal humanitarian crisis,” said Lacruz. “They have no options.”