Mexico Has Its Own Child Migrant Problem

Jul 24, 2014 at 1:39 PM ET

TAPACHULA, MEXICO—The sun is still rising, but already dozens of migrants are lining up at a makeshift shelter in this tropical city in southern Mexico. Many have traveled hundreds of miles from Honduras and El Salvador to stand outside in the heat. The migrants look exhausted. They’re waiting for a rickety bus to take them four hours west, where they’ll climb on the “Beast,” a notoriously dangerous freight train. Once on board, they’ll travel north through Mexico toward the United States, passing through areas crawling with criminal gangs and human traffickers

In recent months, tens of thousands have made this perilous journey. The U.S. has seen a massive influx of child migrants from Central America traveling without parents or papers. The numbers have grown so much that President Barack Obama asked Congress earlier this month for an additional $3.7 billion in emergency funds, as U.S. authorities have scrambled to open new detention centers and speed up deportations.

And yet the migrants here in Tapachula are all grown men. According to the caretakers of this shelter, only four women with children and one teenager have passed through this week. Though the surge of teenage migrants is making headlines, U.S. Border Patrol officials and those who run the shelters in southern Mexico say they’re seeing fewer and fewer of them. “In May and June there were hundreds,” says Irme Punt, a coordinator of the shelter in Tapachula. “Then, two weeks ago, it stopped.”

That is, at least for now. Central America’s great teen migration may have ebbed, but few think it will be the last mass exodus north. Grinding poverty and gang warfare are all too common in places like Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate; and El Salvador isn’t far behind.

“The governments of Central America and Mexico should address the factors triggering this massive migrant trend so that people do not need to leave their countries,” says Sonja Wolf, a social scientist at the Institute for Security and Democracy, a Mexico City-based think tank. “But even with greater political will and resources, this can only be achieved in the long term.”

What triggered the recent surge appears to be a rumor that the U.S. legally had to take in minors and women traveling with small children. No one knows exactly how or when it started. But in the past two weeks, the rumor has waned, in part because of a U.S.-sponsored publicity campaign. Nevertheless, many say the same thing could happen again. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen a rumor cause a sudden influx of people,” says Punt, the shelter coordinator in Tapachula.

To prevent another wave of migration, the U.S. has pressured Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to ramp up border security. Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala announced a new guest worker program earlier this month for Guatemalans in Mexico’s four southern border states. Peña Nieto’s government has also increased deportations, which numbered nearly 90,000 last year, and announced new measures to prevent migrants from traveling north on the Beast.

Here at the southern border, however, many doubt anything will change. Some 15 miles from Tapachula, in the rugged town of Ciudad Hidalgo, the muddy Suchuate River is the only thing separating Mexico from Guatemala.

At a makeshift pier on the banks of the river, dozens of men load boxes of food and soda, as well as barrels of gasoline, onto rafts made from wooden boards and inner tubes. When filled, the men grab their long, wooden sticks and push their 7-foot rafts across the river to Guatemala, where they unload their smuggled cargo. A one-way trip takes roughly 10 minutes.

“If you take the bridge and cross the stuff legally, you have to pay taxes,” says Juan Carlos Marroquín, 28, who makes about 20 of these trips every day. “[But] you don’t even need a passport.” His rates depend on the smuggled products he moves. Each person pays about $1.50 to for a one-way trip. Marroquín asks no questions and doesn’t check his cargo. “We don’t always know what we’re bringing with us. Are there guns and drugs crossing the river? Papi, it’s the border. What do you think?”

Before they return, seven or more migrants often climb aboard. They make no effort to hide and typically cross in the early morning or late afternoon, then make their way to the shelter in Tapachula.

For all the talk about increased border patrol, the migrants cross right under the noses of Mexican immigration officials stationed at a nearby checkpoint. On both sides of the river, Guatemalan and Mexican police drive right by the piers. They rarely slow down to see what’s going on.

“The southern border has always been notoriously porous,” says Wolf, the Mexico City-based social scientist. “Mexican border security is more conspicuous by its absence than its presence.”

Wolf doubts that the Mexican government’s recent measures will lead to fewer migrants crossing the border in the future. So does 28-year-old Raúl Edgardo García. He’s a Honduran migrant who fled his country in June after gang members murdered two of his close friends.

“People will just keep coming to the U.S., because there is no future for any of us in Central America,” he says. “The flow won’t ever stop.”