Parish on Mexico-Guatemala border prepares for new wave of asylum seekers

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Agren

By David Agren

— In the early 1980s, parishioners at the Santo Nino de Atocha parish in this
town on the Mexico-Guatemala border opened their church and homes to refugees fleeing
civil war in Guatemala. Three decades later, they’re preparing for another
influx of asylum seekers — this time from countries farther south as Central
Americans seek safety from the gang violence gripping El Salvador and Honduras.

“The parish has always been
a welcoming place for migrants,” said Sister Maria del Carmen Diaz, a nun
working in the parish. “People here don’t have much money. But they offer
what they can and, what little they have, they share. There’s a sense of

The parish opened the St.
Raphael shelter for migrants in 2011, but it went unused as Central Americans,
fresh from crossing the border, tended to move on quickly and head north toward
the U.S. border. But the shelter was recently expanded — in cooperation with the
Jesuit Migration Service
and with financial support from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — and
inaugurated as a longer-stay shelter for those seeking asylum in Mexico.

The renovations and change of
mission reflect the new reality of Central Americans arriving in Mexico in search
of shelter and a safe place. They’re increasingly staying put and seeking
asylum status in Mexico instead of risking trips to the United States.

“The grand illusion of the
American Dream is still there, but it’s diminished somewhat,” said Jesuit
Father Conrado Zepeda.

Father Zepeda cited several
reasons for the diminished interest, including difficulties in transiting the
country: Kidnapping, extortion and crimes committed against migrants are
common. Mexico has detained and deported more than 300,000 Central Americans
since 2014 as part of the Southern Border Plan, which the government unveiled
to make migration safer and to stop migrants from riding atop freight trains.
Critics contend the increased enforcement has prompted migrants to take even
riskier and less-plied paths through Mexico and has led to abuses against them
by criminals and crooked authorities.

The thinking now among migrants,
said Father Zepeda, is: “If I cannot make it to the United States, then I’ll
stay in Mexico. It’s a little safer than my country and salaries are better.”

The expanded shelter provides
more space for families, rather than just single men spending a night or two. Most
refugees require a stay of several months and some sort of legal assistance in
order to process their asylum claims, Father Zepeda said.

Manuel, 23, is among those
seeking refugee status in Mexico. He worked as a security guard and did not
think about migrating, but ended up fleeing violence in his native El Salvador,
saying members of the MS-13 street gang accused him of robbing a house.

“They threatened me with a
knife to my throat,” said Manuel, who did not give his surname for
security reasons. “Thankfully, they didn’t kill me.”

Manuel arrived in Mexico, but
was robbed and detained some 150 miles from the border. He suffered a broken
arm while in detention and was subsequently allowed to stay in the country.
Manuel has since applied for asylum in Mexico, saying it would be impossible to
return to El Salvador.

He is among the thousands of
Central Americans fleeing some of the most violent countries in the world: Guatemala,
El Salvador and Honduras — with the murder rate topping 80 per 100,000 in the
latter two nations.

Mexican government figures show
an increase in asylum claims of 156.4 percent in 2016, when compared with the
previous years, while the acceptance rate has increased and fewer claims are
being abandoned.

It’s not the first time Mexico
has experienced an influx of asylum seekers. Starting in 1982 an estimated
80,000 refugees — many of them indigenous Maya — arrived from Guatemala after
being driven from their lands. Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, then leader of the
San Cristobal de Las Casas Diocese, organized parish teams to receive and
pastorally tend to the refugees, while ordinary citizens opened their homes.

The tradition of serving
migrants continues in the diocese and in parishes like Santo Nino de Atocha,
where a migrant ministry of more than 20 lay members helps those arriving.

“Migration has structural
issues, which we here cannot resolve, but we can do our part in the diocese,”
said Coadjutor Bishop Enrique Diaz of San Cristobal de Las Casas. “Almost
all of the parishes have a group attending to it, but undoubtedly, Comalapa is
the parish that has committed the most.”

The solidarity shown with refugees
in towns like Frontera Comalapa, where small-scale agriculture underpins the economy
and poverty is pervasive, serves as an example for others turning toward
isolation and prioritizing parochial matters, says one Jesuit leader.

“In the beginning it was
poor indigenous and campesino families that offered hospitality to refugee
families,” said Jesuit Father Jose Luis Gonzalez, southern coordinator for
Jesuit Migration Service in Mexico. “We’re showing today, in the times of
Donald Trump, that it’s the poor who are the first ones to show hospitality.”

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