As we arrive at the first checkpoint in Huehuetan, Chiapas, everyone seems to hold their breath, uncertain of how the authorities are going to respond when a group of two hundred undocumented migrants marches past them. Simón, a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in a wheelchair, is at the head of the group, her mother pushing her from behind. Julio, from El Salvador, walks beside her carrying a large wooden cross, followed by three men bearing a large sign painted in red and black: No + odio migrante(No more hate of migrants). In unison the group begins to chant: “Los migrantes, no somos criminales, somos trabajadores internacionales [Migrants are not criminals, we are international workers].” As soon as we arrive on the other side of the checkpoint, unmolested by the authorities, the chant turns into cheers and a boisterous refrain of “Si, se pudo, si se pudo” [Yes, we could, yes we could].” The Viacrucis Migrant Caravan has achieved its first victory.
The caravan, which takes the form of a month-long journey from the Mexico-Guatemala border to Tijuana, is a political struggle that arose in direct response to unjust and inhumane migration policies on both sides of the border. These policies restrict migrants’ ability to travel safely and at liberty through Mexico, which means that migrants spend months or even years in the precarious conditions of the southern Mexico borderlands. When I first began my dissertation fieldwork in this region, aiming to examine migrants’ embodied and subjective experiences of interrupted trajectories, I expected to find that experiences of violence, injury, and crime were the main culprits behind delayed mobility. Although such factors are not insignificant, I have come to find that it is the southern border itself which impedes the northbound journey, as migrants are forced to choose between the imposed stasis of illegality or running the gauntlet of travel along increasingly dangerous clandestine routes to avoid police detainment.
In 2016, the number of petitions for asylum in Mexico tripled that of the previous year, primarily driven by people fleeing violent conditions in Central America’s Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). As a primary point of entry, Tapachula, the closest major city to the southern Mexico border, has become a hub for asylum seekers and a place of forced resettlement for four to six months on average. However, the refugee system in Mexico is underresourced and inadequate, resulting in long delays and a lack of meaningful protection for current and prospective asylum seekers. As migrants are steered from one bureaucratic channel to the next, while contending with the oppressive weight of boredom, loss of autonomy, and the dire material realities of the refugee condition, they often get stuck in southern border cities, either by outright denial of asylum or by the lack of resources, social support, or will to continue the northbound journey.
This pattern holds especially true for women with small children, who face additional financial and logistical constraints. Without any effective means of social integration, in one of the most impoverished states in Mexico, migrants in border cities often end up fueling a workforce of exploitable and disposable labor, which for many, entails the reproduction of the very gender and sexual subordinations from which they have been trying to break free.
Such was the case for Vanessa, a transgender migrant from El Salvador, who had recently fled her country for the fourth time after gang members attacked her and a group of friends, one of whom received near-fatal stab wounds. Despite Vanessa’s experience of what was clearly gender-based persecution, as well as a well-founded fear of returning to El Salvador, her request for asylum was denied. Without a cent to her name, she began working in commercial sex work to make ends meet, leading to additional experiences of violence and bodily harm.
To be clear, it is not just Mexico that is to blame for the ongoing precaritization of migrant lives. In fact, the intensification of Mexico’s migration control measures is a direct result of U.S. intervention, including the millions of dollars in technology, training, and resources given to Mexico to beef up securitization measures at the southern border. While these measures have resulted in a dramatic increase in rates of deportation of Central American migrants, very little has been done by the United States to support asylum seekers in Mexico or to address the root causes of migration in Central American countries.
Furthermore, according to a recent report by the NGO Human Rights First, those migrants who do manage to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum are, in many cases, unlawfully deterred by U.S. border agents through intimidation, deception, and misinformation, abetted by the complicity of Mexican authorities. Although such incidents were not unheard of during Barack Obama’s presidency, agents have been emboldened by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the new administration, making them more frequent occurrences.
The Viacrucis Migrant Caravan offers an alternative reality, a political vision in which the pursuit of dignified work and a life free of violence is upheld as a fundamental human right. This is not just made visible by colorful incantations and protest iconography, but is enacted by participants. By marching through migration checkpoints, walking down state highways, driving through cities, and refusing to disembark from the cargo train that for years has been a primary means of migrant transportation, these migrants take back mobility and agency from the dimly lit cinder-block rooms and confining shelter walls where these were withheld. While some have criticized the Caravan for exposing migrants to unnecessary danger, proponents contend that the risks are far fewer than those faced every day by migrants traveling alone. At the end of the caravan in Tijuana, seventy-eight people presented themselves at the port of entry to request asylum. Many of them are now awaiting their court hearing and, so far, no one has been denied case review. Among those who did not request asylum, many have reunited with family or resettled in areas with better job prospects and higher wages.
Whether and how the caravan has changed people’s lives remains an open question. What can be said with some certainty is that, even in a time of prolific anti-immigrant sentiment, the human spirit perseveres in the face of adversity to nurture a thriving resistance. Anthropologists can play an important role in showing how these processes play out in the political realm, but also, more importantly, in the lives of the migrants involved. We can use our research to resist the dehumanization and oppression of migration policies that leave so many lives asunder.