TAPACHULA, Mexico — The neatly assembled line of stuffed backpacks stretches more than a mile down the side of a busy two-lane highway outside the southern Mexico city of Tapachula. These are the belongings of hundreds of migrants, mostly from Haiti, trying to save their place in line to board buses that will come and take them to cities further north in Mexico.
It's a line Mexican officials told them to form. But the buses are few and far between. And for the hundreds of migrants camped along the road and at a public park across town, the wait is excruciating.
"I have been here for five months now and have gotten nothing but the run-around," says 24-year old Djeff Orelien, who arrived in Tapachula, just across Mexico's border with Guatemala, with his wife and year-old son back in July.
Mexican officials have told migrants like Orelien they can't leave this southernmost city in Mexico without proper travel documents or a so-called humanitarian visa that allows them free passage through the country. Others have been urged to apply for refugee status or asylum, but must do that in Tapachula, too.
Mexico's Interior Ministry estimates by year's end almost 130,000 migrants will have applied for some type of protection. Nearly half of those applications are from Haitians.
Orelien is part of an exodus of Haitians pouring out of South America. Most fled their Caribbean nation in the mid-2010s, finding jobs plentiful in Brazil and Chile. But as the COVID pandemic ravaged those economies, the Haitians moved north, most hoping to reach the U.S. By some estimates more than 60,000 Haitians have left South America in recent months.
Under one of the few trees providing shade near the roadside line of migrants, 35-year old Tinac Lena is charging his cell phone from an extension cord a nearby homeowner has put out for the Haitian migrants to use.
"We have been waiting here on the road for more than a week," he says, shouting in broken Spanish he learned during his six years in South America. "We have no water, no work, nothing....why do they treat us like this?" he adds, as dozens of other migrants nod their heads in agreement.
The Haitians' arrival, along with thousands of other migrants originally from Venezuela, Cuba and countries in Africa, has overwhelmed Mexican authorities. There are fewer than 50 asylum claim officers in Mexico's refugee assistance program. The slow bureaucracy, as well as the lack of clear information, is frustrating to the migrants who can't work or leave the city without proper documents.
"We've never seen such a situation here, one so dramatic, so terrible and so poorly managed by the INM (National Migration Institute, Mexico's immigration agency)," says Enrique Vidal, a migrant activist with the Fray Matías de Córdoba Center for Human Rights in Tapachula. "This is a humanitarian emergency."
Vidal says migrants have told his group that authorities are charging as much as $400 to get a seat on a bus. One INM official did not respond to a question about the accusation.
For more than two weeks thousands of Haitians have also been lining up along a tall green fence at a park on the edge of Tapachula. That's where immigration officials hand out pieces of paper with a large QR code, which allows the migrants to board buses headed north out of the city.
There are just eight overflowing portable toilets in the park. The baking sun accentuates the fetid smell. Most migrants sleep on the sidewalk, not wanting to venture far from their spot in line. A phalanx of Mexican National Guard troops with large plastic anti-riot shields patrol the long line of migrants.
Everyday before noon, after only a few hours of work, an immigration official walks the line with a bullhorn announcing "activities" for the day have ended. Some days no QR codes are handed out.
"They treat us like animals," says Barecena Jean, also from Haiti. She says she's been sleeping at the park for more than week in hopes of securing a spot on a bus.
Activists in support of migrant rights say such treatment is a purposeful strategy. "This is part of the immigration authorities' policy of dehumanizing and humiliating the migrants," says Yamel Athie, a local activist and psychologist. "They just hope the Haitians will give up."
The INM did not respond to a request for comment. One official, who said they were not authorized to talk to the press, did say that the number of migrants reaching Mexico is at record levels and dealing with the Haitians is a struggle due to the language barriers. Haitians speak either French or Creole.
Mexico has long been under pressure to do more to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border, says Maureen Meyer, of the Washington Office on Latin America.
"It's...a message from the Biden Administration that what they want from countries further south is to do as much as they can to stop migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border," Meyer says.
In September, 15,000 Haitians made it from Mexico to the Texas border city of Del Rio. While as many as 5,000 were deported back to Haiti, the rest were allowed into the U.S. to make asylum claims.
While some of the migrants say they want to stay in Mexico and work, many of the Haitians interviewed in southern Mexico ultimately want to get into the U.S.
Djeeff Orelien says Miami is his destination. "The U.S. is the best place for us Haitians to live and work," he says. He wants to follow Mexican law so he can travel safely but he says the authorities make it so hard. "I don't want to do anything crooked, I just want to get a permit so I can get out of here," he adds.
One night this week 15 buses showed up along the busy two-lane highway without any prior announcement. Hundreds of Haitians scrambled to board the buses. National Guard troops attempted to keep the peace. Orelien didn't get a coveted seat.
"Life is really difficult, I don't want to die here, I just need to keep moving forward," he says, contemplating the long wait for the next group of buses.
Local gang prevention officer Alberto Rodriguez, who helps out with controlling the migrant crowds, says the situation is frustrating all around. The stream of migrants coming into town appears endless.
"One day 800 may leave, but another 1,000 show up right behind them," says Rodriguez, shaking his head in exasperation.