Reflections from Tenosique
In June, I had the opportunity to visit migrant shelters operating under the Franciscan Network on Migration, a Quixote Center partner, in southern Mexico. No two shelters were alike. To walk across the threshold was to enter a new kind of haven, each beautiful and kinetic in its own way. La 72 in Tenosique seemed always to be bursting with energy, with some migrants entering and leaving the shelter in just a day, and others staying long-term as they worked to determine their next steps and heal.
“We try to make their stay here as pleasant as possible,” said Alejandra, a lawyer at La 72. A hundred people reside in La 72 on any given day. Despite the immense volume of people circulating in and out, the staff and volunteers were filled with unbridled compassion and energy to confront the needs of highly vulnerable populations.
The Structural Change Program at La 72, as Alejandra explained, aims to both materially improve the quality of life in border communities and foster a more positive and nuanced view of migrants. La 72 staff regularly visits communities and hosts workshops on immigration law and human rights, empowering communities to defend migrants, as well as their own rights.
Casa Belén, located just across the border in Guatemala, was deserted when we arrived, as most migrants stop there for a night and continue on their way in the morning. La 72 and Casa Belén work together closely to address cases of families separated on the journey, unaccompanied children, and people in a situation of violence; in cases like these, people can stay longer.
In contrast, Casa del Caminante in Palenque has a separate area for longer-term residents, usually families who are applying for refugee status in Chiapas. Their module, complete with a separate kitchen, houses individual dorms for each family. We saw children running around the courtyard’s playground, delighted to have the space to be children.
In Santa Martha, Chiapas, we were warmly received by two Catholic sisters at Casa Betania. Despite the town’s sleepy appearance, the sisters noted that “every kind of trafficking”—from drugs to humans—is commonplace. But in the shelter’s courtyard, decorated in brightly-colored banners and a large pride flag, such dangers felt far away.
Each shelter is located along the old route of La Bestia, a network of freight trains used by migrants to travel North. It no longer runs in the areas we visited, but in Santa Martha and Palenque, many migrants still undertake the same journey by walking along the tracks.
We learned from COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee office, that if applicants for refugee status in Mexico leave the state in which they applied initially, they forfeit their application. In southern Mexico, this was problematic for several reasons. In the South (especially in Chiapas, ranked Mexico’s most impoverished state) it is difficult for migrants to find work. Second, if a migrant in Tenosique needs to travel to Villahermosa for any reason, such as finding work or accessing specialized medical care, they first need to pass through Chiapas, a different state, to get there. This policy leaves migrants trapped in communities struggling to find work. The Franciscan Network was set up to respond to this crisis.
Looking to the Future
As we reflect on everything that we experienced and learned, the Quixote Center team hopes to plan another delegation to southern Mexico before the end of this year! And, we work to ensure that our partners at the Franciscan Network on Migration receive as much from this partnership as we have.
“The Franciscan Network for Migrants appreciates the support and constant collaboration of Quixote Center to our organization,” wrote Vianey, our RFM liaison at La 72. “This visit was the first and we are in the dialogue to plan more to the southern border of Mexico. We also thank the migrant shelters who received us despite their commitments. We admire the hard work they do every day to seek the defense of the human rights of migrants. It doesn’t matter if we are from different religions or secular, we are always willing to work together for our brothers and sisters. We hope to meet again soon!”