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Eduardo Campos LimaDecember 15, 2021
Migrants wait outside of the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry in Nogales, Mexico. The U.S./Mexico border looms in the background. (Photo by Keara Hanlon)

In mid-November, a caravan of immigrants left Tapachula in the south of Mexico with the goal of reaching Mexico City. The group—3,000 strong—included Latin Americans from many different nations who hope to enter the United States and who demanded that Mexican authorities issue official permits that would allow them to travel through the country.

A number of similar caravans have faced severe repression during their journeys from Mexican police and its national guard. Mexican security forces have attempted to disband the migrant groups and arrest their members.

Despite that threat, new caravans are always forming, mainly consisting of large contingents of Central Americans, but with a growing presence of Haitians and Venezuelans, too. At the U.S. border with Mexico, they converge with immigrants from other nations; lately, that has meant an increasing number of Brazilians.

New migrant caravans to the United States are always forming with large contingents of Central Americans, but there is a growing presence of Haitians, Venezuelans and Brazilians among them.

A generalized economic crisis in South America, exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak in the region, has been propelling the migrant caravans. Over the past decade, Brazil and Chile had welcomed thousands of Haitians and Venezuelans. With the economic and social deterioration that those countries are now facing, immigrants who had already found a respite in those states are beginning to seek new options.

“The migratory reality is something unstable and unpredictable. With the crisis in Brazil, for instance, migration networks which had been asleep have been quickly reactivated,” said the Italian-born Paolo Parise, C.S., who heads Mission Peace, a welcome center for immigrants and refugees in São Paulo, Brazil.

Father Parise told America that a few years ago human traffickers used to linger around the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, promoting economic possibilities in Brazil to potential immigrants.

“Now they are doing the same around the U.S. embassy in São Paulo, trying to convince people to go to the U.S.,” he said.

Haitians particularly are leaving Chile and Brazil by land and travelling great distances through Colombia, Panama and Central America until they arrive in Mexico. Many Venezuelans are leaving Brazil following the same routes, although many also travel north by plane. Brazilians and Ecuadorians usually depart to Mexico by plane and from there are guided by coyotes, as human traffickers at the border are called, into the United States.

“Haitians tend to be more vulnerable, so we have more contact with them in our shelters than with people from Brazil and Ecuador,” said Conrado Zepeda, S.J., who directs Jesuit Refugee Service in Mexico.

A generalized economic crisis in South America, exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak in the region, has been propelling migrant caravans north.

Father Zepeda said that between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitian families have been detained by the Mexican government in Tapachula. Most of those families have already traveled a great distance from other South American countries.

“While I was there, I met a family and greeted their kid in French. The child’s parents then told me he doesn’t understand it since he was born in Brazil and only speaks Portuguese,” Father Zepeda said.

In October, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 46,000 Brazilians had been apprehended at the border with Mexico in the first 11 months of the 2021 fiscal year, a record increase. In 2019, by comparison, there were 17,893 detentions of Brazilians.

“Now, there is certainly a lot of pressure on the Mexican government to start requiring a visa from Brazilians arriving there,” Father Parise said.

Brazilians are fleeing one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Many are hoping to connect with relatives already in the United States. Just under 2 million Brazilian nationals live in the United States.

About a quarter of the Haitians arrested on the border identify themselves to Border Patrol as Brazilian. Many have indeed, after years in Brazil, attained legal residency or citizenship there and arrive at the border with children who had been born in Brazil. That means, according to Father Zepeda, part of the phenomenon of the record number of Brazilians trying to get to the United States has origins in the long-term political and economic crisis in Haiti.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 46,000 Brazilians had been apprehended at the border with Mexico in the first 11 months of the 2021 fiscal year, a record increase.

In contemporary Haiti, conditions have become even worse since many of these refugees first fled to Brazil. Migration direct from Haiti to the United States has tracked the intensification of social turmoil that followed the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse’s in July.

“The situation [in Haiti] is terrible,” said the Rev. Wilnes Tilus of Les Cayes, a community in the south of Haiti. “Nobody feels safe anywhere. Most schools remain closed because of the criminal gangs.”

According to Father Tilus, a former director of the Caritas-Haiti, relief resources are concentrated in the capital, including the international help directed to Haiti.

“In the provinces, the youth don’t have anything,” he said. “Young men sell their land and buy a motorcycle in order to move to the city. When they make some money, they go to the Dominican Republic.”

Pictures of U.S. border patrol agents on horseback using reins against Haitian immigrants at the Texas border have not discouraged would-be immigrants in Haiti, Father Tilus said.

“That was an unspeakable attack on our dignity. It’s a new kind of colonialism, similar to what our ancestors faced,” he said. “But that didn’t change the people’s goal to cross the border.

“They will only change their strategy. A few days ago, some deportees arrived from Texas. They told me they will keep trying to enter the U.S.,” Father Tilus said.

Pictures of U.S. border patrol agents on horseback using reins against Haitian immigrants at the Texas border have not discouraged would-be immigrants in Haiti.

Greater numbers of Haitians have been seeking to flee the country by sea.

“I was part of a group that tried to sail to the U.S., but unfortunately we didn’t make it,” a 28-year-old Haitian student from the coastal community of Jérémie, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

He explained that he can longer endure the crescendo of crises in Haiti and only plans for his next attempt to get to the United States.

“Life is expensive; there are no jobs, and we feel totally unsafe,” he said. He had hoped to graduate from university before migrating, but he does not have the money to finish school.

In Central America, an economic crisis intensified by the pandemic and recent natural catastrophes, including two hurricanes, and the region’s widespread violence press many to attempt to escape.

German-born Joaquín Frank, S.V.D., helps run a shelter for migrants in Salto de Agua in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. Last year because of the pandemic the number of guests at his shelter fell to only 8,000 people.

But so far this year “we already welcomed 26,000 people,” he said. “Eighty percent of them come from Honduras.”

Father Frank said that the United States and Mexico have been cooperating in an effort to intercept migrants at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. “But there is much corruption, and at times people only have to pay an official in order to keep traveling,” he said.

“Not too long ago, everybody’s dream was to live in Chile. Now, everybody wants to go to the U.S.” 

There is an atmosphere of fear in the region. La Bestia, the train that thousands of migrants had regularly used to travel north, has been shut down because of the construction works of the Mayan Train, which will cross the same region. Now criminal gangs control the transport of migrants through the region, exploiting them every step of the way.

On the other side of the border in Mexico, officials do not inspire much confidence. The Divine Word’s shelter was recently visited by a group of people in civilian clothes claiming to be agents from the local prosecutor’s office. After threatening to break the door down, they entered and searched its guests before seeking out more information on visitors on its computer.

“They wanted to intimidate us because we work with immigrants,” Father Frank said.

He sees more Venezuelans passing through Salto de Agua, something that was not typical in the past. In fact, the continuing socio-political meltdown in Venezuela has led many of its nationals to fantasize about living in the United States now, said Elvy Monzant, the executive secretary of the Latin American and Caribbean Ecclesial Network on Migration, Displacement, Refugee and Trafficking in Persons. Known as the Clamor Network, it is the Latin American bishops’ association for Catholic immigrant and refugee services in the region.

“Not too long ago, everybody’s dream was to live in Chile. Now, everybody wants to go to the U.S. There are people in my neighborhood in Maracaibo advertising their services as coyotes who can take people there,” Mr. Monzant told America.

Venezuelans persuaded by traffickers to try for the United States usually go to Colombia first where they take a plane to Mexico.

“They sell their house and their car and pay $5,000 to be taken to the border. Tomorrow, a 72-year-old lady with a problem in her leg is taking this trip. Her daughter lives in the U.S., and she was denied a visa,” he said.

The church in Latin America is attempting to respond to what has become the world’s largest migration crisis, according to Mr. Monzant, overcoming even the Syrian diaspora, with 7 million Venezuelans now displaced..

 

“We’re certainly worried about the diminishing resources we have and about the increasing need,” he said. “Our refectories,” restaurants and dining halls that offer free meals to migrants, “are getting too small; our shelters don’t have enough beds for everybody who arrives,” he said.

Over the past few months, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico have established their own “branch offices” of the Clamor Network as the Latin American church attempts to extend its outreach to migrants. Argentina is in the process of creating its own chapter, and the Antilles will also have one in order to coordinate the efforts to deal with migrants traveling on boats in the Caribbean. Brazil established its national chapter in 2020, while Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela did so in 2019.

“The national chapters can strengthen the coordination of the local Catholic services and thus better assist the people,” Mr. Monzant said.

“Misery and exclusion,” he said, are growing all over the hemisphere. “Systemic violence is also growing, with armed groups and drug dealers in every country. Environmental catastrophes—many of them provoked by human action—will also continue to affect millions,” Mr. Monzant said, “so we know immigration will keep growing too.”

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