On Wednesday, The Post published the results of a poll it conducted alongside leading Mexican newspaper Reforma. It is a sweeping overview of Mexican public opinion. Some of its conclusions are unsurprising — with a 70 percent approval rating, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains popular, which is to be expected for a man who was elected just a year ago in a historic landslide and who has yet to face a crisis to truly test his mettle (although that might change soon).
The poll also probes Mexican attitudes toward immigration. Although other surveys have recently hinted at Mexican prejudice, The Post poll’s results are shocking: Fifty-one percent agree to the use of the National Guard, a new branch of Mexico’s armed forces, “to combat the migration of undocumented Central Americans in Mexico,” the equivalent of a majority of Americans supporting a hypothetical deployment of the Army to persecute undocumented immigrants inside the United States.
Fifty-five percent of Mexicans support deporting potential Central American refugees rather than given them temporary residency in the country. (In a recent poll, only 15 percent of Americans said it should be a priority to deport immigrants in the United States illegally.) It gets worse — 64 percent of those polled said immigrants “are a burden” on Mexico “because they take jobs and receive benefits that should belong to Mexicans.” Again, the contrast with U.S. public opinion is striking: only 37 percent of Americans see immigration as detrimental to the country’s economy.
Mexico’s xenophobia is a tragedy, just as much as its potential consequences. President Trump could now point to Mexico’s appetite for enforcement as a validation of his own punitive approach to immigration. Any outcry over the abuse Mexican undocumented immigrants withstand in the United States could be dismissed as hypocritical. But most of all, the poll’s results lay bare Mexican society’s thorough lack of understanding of the plight of Central American migrants.
I’ve spent the last few days in Tijuana, reporting from a number of immigrant shelters. The situation is dire.
Isaac Olvera, who runs Casa Puerta de Esperanza, the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter in the city, is expecting disaster. Shelters are scarce and stretched to their limit. The Mexican government has failed to commit new resources and has cut back on support for efforts run by civil society. (As part of a draconian austerity program, the López Obrador administration recently took away the equivalent of 30 percent of Olvera’s yearly budget.) Tijuana itself is going through one of the most violent couple of years in the city’s history, with 2,500 murders in 2018. Prejudice is also on the rise. “Society is rejecting immigrants,” Olvera told me. “They think they take our jobs. But this has nothing to do with reality. This is utterly ignorant. This are good people, healthy people who are just trying to seek refuge.”
A couple of miles from Olvera’s shelter is the Instituto Madre Asunta, a blue house with high fences where Scalabrinian sisters have protected migrant women and children for decades. The shelter usually houses about 40 immigrants. Today, 130 people sleep there every night. The shelter’s courtyard is filled with suitcases, blankets and clothing. With much effort, it recently opened an educational program for kids. Sister Salomé, one of the handful of social workers who run the sanctuary, told me most women arrive at the shelter in “a state of complete shock.” After fleeing gang violence, poverty or domestic violence in their home countries, “many faced a calvary on their way through Mexico.”
The Mexican government’s unprecedented crackdown on immigrants has flooded the country’s few detention facilities along the southern border, pushing many immigrants into the hands of increasingly dangerous smuggling networks.
At the Madre Asunta shelter, I met a Honduran woman. She was terrified. After years of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband, she had decided to flee with her 10-year-old-son, a wide-eyed boy who refused to leave her side. In Tapachula, Mexico, she had tried to get into a government shelter. The place was full, so she decided to sleep outside. A man soon offered assistance. He identified himself as a fellow Honduran immigrant. She soon found herself trapped in a house, extorted and forced to work along with a couple of other women and children. She was sexually assaulted.
“I asked him why she had chosen me,” she told me. As she recounted the man’s reply, she began crying. “He told me he that of all of the immigrant women he had seen walking around the shelter, I was the humblest.” At some point she caught a glimpse of photographs on her captor’s phone: men she had previously seen in Tapachula were pictured kneeling, with their hands tied behind their backs: perhaps signs of a human smuggling network. She managed to escape and had made her way to Tijuana with the help of the United Nations Refugee Agency. She is now awaiting a hearing in the United States.
Other immigrants in Tijuana had been caught in the United States and sent back to wait out their asylum processes. Their stories are equally horrifying. I met Juan Carlos, a Honduran immigrant, waiting in line outside the Salvation Army’s shelter for men. He told me had had no choice but to leave his country: One of his brothers had been killed by gangs, and he was not willing to risk Elkin, his 7-year-old son, wasting his life away. Juan Carlos and Elkin crossed the border in Texas and soon found themselves living a nightmare.
“We went two weeks without access to a shower. I got sick, the boy got sick,” he told me. He says he was transferred to a different facility for deportation. The abuse continued. “One officer said to me, ’There’s plenty of land here to bury you,’ ” Juan Carlos recalled. “ ‘Trump doesn’t want you here, and neither do I.’ ” Juan Carlos says he only wanted Elkin, an energetic and funny boy, to have an education.
Virna, a Salvadoran immigrant at the Madre Asunta shelter, had a similar story. Two years ago, her only son had been abducted and killed. Early this year, the men she suspected of the murder came back for her teenage daughter, whom they wanted to enlist as a mule and prostitute. Virna left with the young woman and her two other daughters. A Border Patrol agent who caught her in the United States subjected them to endless humiliations, she said.
“They treat us like animals,” she told me. During one of her first interactions with American immigration officials, Virna remained silent: “They screamed in English, and I just stared at them and kept my head down.” The officer, a Hispanic man, switched to Spanish to continue the abuse: “Look at me. Can’t you hear me?” Virna recalls the officer yelling. He continued demanding answers.
“ ‘Why have you entered my country this way, like an animal. Why not ask for a visa?’ ” she says the officer roared. “Because you would never give it to me,” Virna replied.
Virna says she was later thrown to the floor in a detention facility, along with her young daughters. Her 16-year-old daughter, whose life was threatened directly by Salvadoran thugs, remained in the United States, separated from her mother. Virna and her two other daughters were sent back to Tijuana, where they are now waiting for their number to come up.
These are the lives that hang in the balance of the tragedy brewing between Central America, Mexico and the United States. That the Mexican public has chosen to turn its back on the suffering of thousands is a dramatic moral failure borne of ignorance, cynicism and the Mexican government’s utter unpreparedness for a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude. It could get much worse. The Trump administration’s policies, enforced with the help of the López Obrador administration, will sharply increase the number of Central American immigrants in Mexico. Without sizable resources, shelters in Tijuana and other cities along the border will lose control. Viable sanctuaries need to be built; real opportunities need to be found.
If Mexico and the United States choose to focus only on enforcement and avoid discussing aid, lives will be torn and lost. And xenophobia, sadly, will put Mexico on a dark path. What follows is an abyss.
León Krauze is an award-winning Mexican journalist, author and news anchor. He is currently the lead anchor at KMEX, Univision’s station in Los Angeles.