The first rule that the newly arrived immigrant in Tapachula, Mexico, should know is the following: the bureaucratic procedures may be slow, but he cannot be. The migratory offices work at their own sluggish pace, and are swamped whenever another Central American caravan reaches the town. Meanwhile, the Chiapas police have an uncanny knack for detecting undocumented immigrants, and are equally impressive for how fast they apprehend them, which is something they are proud of.
Step One: Hurry!
"You have to stay on your toes, because [the police] will catch you if you don't know what you’re doing," say two Cuban brothers from Holguin who arrived in Tapachula only a week prior. Both preferred not to reveal their names.
According to them, it all starts at the offices of the Mexican Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR), where the local authorities issue a document that allows the immigrant to walk around the city without being stopped by the police, as it certifies that his request for immigration status is pending.
"When you arrive at Tapachula, the first thing you have to do is go there and line up in front of the COMAR. There, in the line, you’re protected, and the police can’t do anything to you. But, if you walk down another street, and are caught, you can go to jail, or even be deported to Cuba," explained one of them.
"Another important thing is that paper they give you there, which you can’t lose, or damage, or anything. That's more important than an identity card. That's everything here, until they grant you your immigration status," says the other, showing his, carefully folded and covered by several layers of nylon, like those of almost all Cubans who have yet to achieve some kind of residency.
In Tapachula there are two COMAR offices: the "New COMAR" and the "Old COMAR", approximately one kilometer from each other, very close to the center of the city.
The "New COMAR" is the site where migrants must first go to receive the paperwork certifying that they are in the middle of an immigration process because they have applied for refugee status. It is advisable to proceed directly there rather than resting from one’s journey through Central America. No matter the hour, there will always be new arrivals waiting in line. When the convoys reach Tapachula, several interviewees say, thousands of people gather in front of the doors and remain there until, days later, they get their permits.
Step two: Wait
The rush to get the paper from the COMAR's is followed by a tense wait to achieve immigration status, which is granted by the offices of the National Institute of Immigration (INM). Before the pandemic, according to some Cubans living in Tapachula, INM procedures could take weeks, or even a month. Now that the immigration authorities have decided that everything will be done via email, it is feared that it could take months.
"After leaving COMAR, the most important thing is to buy a SIM, with Internet access. And you have to watch out for the Haitians, who are swindlers and tell you that you have Internet for a month, and you use it up in one day. It’s better to buy it at a normal store than to go with the resellers," explains one of the brothers from Holguin.
After submitting the identification documents by e-mail, the immigrant must wait for a response from the INM. If they are accepted, an interview will follow, which are currently being conducted by telephone. The last step for those who have asked to be recognized as refugees is handled at the "Old COMAR", where one is granted or denied this status.
The brothers are still waiting for an answer from the INM, but are prepared for the interview. During their week in Tapachula they have managed to gather information from other migrants who have been in the city longer, who have told them that the questions have to do with what kind of immigration status they want to request, why they left Cuba, what their intentions are in Mexico, and how the trip through Central America went.
Possible migratory statuses for a Cuban include "Visitor for humanitarian reasons" (humanitarian visa), "Permanent resident", "Permanent resident for migratory regularization", "Temporary resident" and "Permanent resident for humanitarian reasons". Except for the first one, all of them feature a four-year renewal period. The "Humanitarian Visitor" card is only valid for one year, and is usually issued to those who initially propose to cross the country in order to enter the United States.
Step three: Get informed
As Tapachula is one of the hot spots of the region’s migration drama, several organizations dedicated to helping migrants and protecting their human rights are based in this city. Knowing about the services they provide can be crucial for those who have arrived in vulnerable situations, and, above all, for women and children.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, provides economic assistance to many of the thousands of unprotected migrants lingering in Tapachula, as well as guidance on the procedures.
For issues associated with legal assistance, condemnations of human rights violations, and psychological help, migrants can turn to the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center. This non-governmental, non-profit organization was founded in 1994, along with many other human rights organizations in Mexico, all inspired by the Zapatista movement. Among its functions is the condemnation and reporting of kidnappings and forced disappearances of migrants, as well as influencing public policies aimed at making Tapachula a safe place for those fleeing the misery and violence in their countries of origin.
There are many others, mainly of a religious nature, but the health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has greatly limited their actions in recent months.
Officially, the immigrant is informed on his first visit to the COMAR of places where he can receive care in the event of health problems.
"They usually give you a phone number where you can get care. I haven't needed it, and I don't know anyone who has, at least not those of us who are thinking of going to the United States," says Ramon, a 25-year-old Havanan who has been in Tapachula for four months now. He also asked not to be identified for this report.
Step Four: Blend in and keep your mouth shut
"Two things are important here: don't look like a newly arrived immigrant, and don't run your mouth," Ramon continues.
According to him and other Cubans from Tapachula, a few days ago a group of eight Cubans recently arrived from the Guatemalan jungle were captured by police in one of the city's parks. They were given away by their dirty clothes and exhausted expressions, as well as their white skin and the huge backpacks on their shoulders. Dangerously unaware, they decided to rest before going to the COMAR. They were all sent to the Siglo XXI Chiapas Immigration Facility, from where they may be deported.
For the Cubans in Tapachula, the Siglo XXI Immigration Facility is "the Siglo XXI prison". They utter the name with dread. None of those interviewed knows anyone who has been released, nor do they know any fugitives who have escaped from it and gone into hiding on the northern border.
"They say that, from the Siglo XXI, you either escape, or are returned to your country," says Ramon.
Deportations in Chiapas are very common. In 2020, for example, the number of deportees in the state represented approximately 71% of the number of immigrants who passed through the INM. Among foreigners, Cubans are among the least deported: between 8% and 17% of the total number of immigrants from the island who end up at the INM in Tapachula.
Before deportation one must pass through the Siglo XXI, which has been repeatedly accused of subjecting its prisoners to inhuman conditions. Other reports also indicate that many detainees are victims of theft and blackmail by prison authorities.
According to Ramón, even more important than not looking like a newcomer is knowing how to keep one’s mouth shut.
"In the INM interview it is a bad idea to tell the truth about how you got here. If you came alone, through the jungle, if you joined a caravan, you can say that. But, if you paid a "coyote" who did things right and brought you here without a problem in just a few days, you’d better not tell them that. They have to feel sorry for you. You should say that it took you a long time to get there, that you were robbed, that you don't have a dime. These are things that happen a lot, but there are those who show up without many problems, and they shouldn’t let them know that," he explains.
"I don't want any trouble. What if someone reads it? I want to go back to Cuba at some point, and don’t want any trouble there. Besides, if I tell them how I got there, about the coyotes and all that, and they read it here, then I can get into trouble. If you tell them at the INM that you came with a coyote, paying, they think ‘that's human trafficking!’ Then they start asking you to tell them everything you know about him. Other Cubans tipped me off about this when I arrived," he continues.
Most Cuban migrants in Tapachula avoid talking to the press, and those who do often ask not to be identified. Their apprehension may be, in part, due to a habit of silence brought with them from Cuba, with its totalitarian system, an approach they have adopted as an axiom or as a philosophy of life: "telling the truth can only get you into trouble. " However, this is not the only reason.
By telling the truth, Cubans are more vulnerable. One cannot say that he had an easy journey, riding in a car or a truck with a competent coyote. Nor can he say that he was all right in Cuba, but left because he simply wanted to live better.
According to the Mexican Interior Ministry’s Bulletin of Migratory Statistics, the reason most cited by Cubans in 2020 to acquire a "Visitor for Humanitarian Reasons" card was "refugee status," previously issued at the COMAR. The second most common reason was for being victims or witnesses of a crime that places them in danger, while the third was associated with "humanitarian causes;" that is, medical and psychological treatment necessary to preserve life, the recovery or recognition of a corpse, or help for a family member with a dire health condition residing in Mexico.
Political asylum, on the other hand, is rarely granted by the INM. In 2020 only three Cubans obtained it, making Cuba the country with the second most political asylum seekers in all of Mexico. The first was Venezuela, with four.
In reality, the political and social situation from which most Cuban migrants in Tapachula are fleeing cannot be compared to that left behind by many Central Americans. While the former can speak of scarcity, a lack of freedom, and repression on the island, many Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans have left behind abject poverty, evictions, paramilitary groups, massacres, gangs and political assassinations. Still, everyone here shares the same sensation: that of no longer belonging anywhere.