Pablo Manto Lusa’s elation morphed into dread and uncertainty.
A day before, the 43-year-old rejoiced with his family after they obtained permanent residency cards issued by the Mexican immigration authorities. The cards represented freedom – or at least freedom of movement after months of being held at a camp for migrants and asylum seekers in Tapachula, a border town in southern Mexico.
But then Lusa began rethinking the implications of regularising his stay in Mexico.
Lusa, his wife Nacha, and their three kids fled political persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are among thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers seeking passage to the United States but stranded in Tapachula, in Mexico's Chiapas region. They come mostly from countries like Cameroon and Congo.
Many arrived in Tapachula in the first half of 2019. But in June Mexico succumbed to threats of trade tariffs from US President Donald Trump if the migrant flow wasn’t drastically reduced. The Mexican government started enforcing restrictions, cracking down hard on those attempting to leave Tapachula for the United States.
Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) stopped issuing exit permits allowing movement north in July, prompting angry protests – the new permits only allowed exits south, back to Guatemala where most had come from. Most refused to take them.
Protests continued through October and in some instances turned violent. Pressure from the migrants and civil rights activists forced INM to begin processing permanent residency (PR) status for Africans in November as a solution to the deadlock. Lusa and his family were some of the first to obtain their PR cards.
Many initially didn’t apply, fearing that although PR status in Mexico could allow them to travel out of Tapachula to the US border, it could also affect their asylum cases in the United States or Canada.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1980 US Refugee Act prevent migrants afforded safety in another country from seeking protection in a third country, explained US immigration lawyer and Salem State University professor Robert McAndrews.
“It dooms their chance of obtaining asylum in the US,” he said. “This is exactly what Trump is arguing in the case of Central American migrants who have made it safely to Mexico.”
Before the PR cards were issued, African migrants turned to smugglers to get them out of Tapachula, paying up to $2,500 to get to the US border. The routes are dangerous: two Cameroonians died in September when a smuggling boat capsized off the coast of Chiapas. Others caught by Mexico's National Guard have ended up in prison.
‘I don’t know’
Lusa was in a state of despair when The New Humanitarian spoke to him in November. “If we are unlucky enough that we can’t cross [into the United States], then I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
Lusa’s uncertainty mirrored that of many African migrants in Tapachula.
At the immigration centre, they questioned Mexican officials about the consequences of taking the PR card and wondered if US border patrol officers would be able to detect their status in Mexico. The officials said there would be no problems. The migrants remained sceptical but acknowledged there were no other options for them.
Submitting personal identification data like fingerprints is mandatory for permanent residency application. “How I wish they didn’t capture our biometrics,” one migrant said, preferring not to be named.
The shifting goal posts for Africans in Mexico
But most Africans have no intention of staying in Mexico. Their destinations of choice are the United States or Canada. Many told TNH in November that they planned to hide their PR cards or throw them away to avoid complications at the US border, and several have since left Tapachula and headed north.
But whatever their plans, the status of Africans who regularised in Mexico will likely be detected by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, the CBP and Mexico’s immigration authorities have a data-sharing agreement that went into effect in December 2017.
Whether holding Mexican PR status will affect their US claims negatively is one of the big unknowns facing the African asylum seekers.
Groups of Africans who left Tapachula in December are already at the US border and are regularly sending information back to those still processing their PR cards in southern Mexico.
Abdoulaye Ismail from Benin, who remains in Tapachula, told TNH in a phone interview this week that the PR cards may not be a problem for those seeking US asylum as a family unit.
"Those with families are already [legally] in the US, as we heard," Ismail said. Others travelling as individuals remain in refugee camps on the Mexican side, waiting for their turn to meet with US border patrol officers.
In September, the US Supreme Court backed Trump’s new ‘safe third country’ policy, which bars asylum seekers from eligibility in the United States if they don’t first seek protection in the countries they pass through.
Under the policy, asylum seekers could be sent back to Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras to seek protection there, although only the US deal with Guatemala has so far been implemented.
The Northern Triangle, as the three countries are referred to, has some of the highest rates of violence on the continent. Nationals from these countries also make up the majority of migrants heading to the US border in the hope of asylum.
Rights advocates say many of 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent back to Guatemala since deportations began last month didn’t know their rights or even which country they were in on arrival.
The African asylum seekers, most of whom flow originally into South America and had to pass through several countries in southern and Central America before reaching Mexico, could also be affected.
As of 17 January, there were no reports of Africans deported to a third country or affected by “Remain in Mexico”, a Trump-era policy barring asylum seekers from staying in the United States while their claims are heard, which can take a year or longer.
Numbers still rising
The number of African asylum seekers in Mexico continues to increase. Some 5,800 Africans entered Mexico in 2019 – 4,000 were stuck in Chiapas by November when TNH was on the ground.
As some receive their PR cards and trickle out towards the US border, others arrive over the southern border from Guatemala.
"Some have left but more people have arrived. There are so many people here now, waiting," Ismail told TNH this week, from Tapachula.
While Ismail said most people's destination of choice remains the United States or Canada, some Africans are choosing to stay in Mexico and seek asylum there, saying they are too tired to continue the harrowing journey.
Irene Lum Ateh, 46, is one of them. A former teacher fleeing Cameroon’s anglophone conflict, she told TNH she now wants to tour the country, learn Spanish, and bring her children – still in Cameroon – over to Mexico.
However, Ateh is the exception more than the rule.
“The bulk of [Africans] do not want to apply for asylum,” said Andrés Ramírez, director of Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR . “We cannot impose on anybody the decision to apply for asylum; that must be done on a voluntary basis.”
Most African migrants continue to resort to accepting PR status instead. About 200 applications were approved by December and hundreds more are queuing up to complete the process. The slow application process is creating a backlog, but many are determined to wait, get the document, and move north.
When they do get to the US-Mexico border, more problems await. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers – mostly of Central American origin – are waiting in camps in border cities like Tijuana and Matamoros. A massive bottleneck has developed as a result of a “metering” system that sees US officials only attend to a few cases per day.
Migrants wait for as long as six months to get called. Amid the fast-changing legal and political climate, that may be how long it will take for African migrants with Mexican PR status and without families to find out if they are eligible for asylum in the US.
Some plan to smuggle themselves into the United States if they are rejected.
Those, like Ateh, who choose to stay in Mexico will likely face discrimination, racism, and even cartel violence in a country where drug wars have led to the death of 200,000 people, activists point out.
But it’s not all bad, according to Ateh. “Other countries don’t grant you PR after just three months. I welcome this card with all my heart.” Ateh was already planning where to settle in Mexico when TNH spoke to her in November.