Rosa Hidalia Palacios fled El Salvador in April. She crossed into Mexico from Guatemala without a hitch, riding on a little raft that ferries people and goods back and forth. A few hundred yards down the Suchiate River from the rafting route, Mexican immigration enforcement agents watched idly from the official border crossing.
Palacios hasn’t made it much farther than the border, as dozens of migration checkpoints cover all roads leading north. She is stuck in a nearby city, Tapachula, Mexico, waiting in line outside the little office of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid.
“I don’t have a single peso,” she says, sipping a cup of coffee. “Some nuns came by this morning and gave us coffee and bread.”
She’s sitting on a rain-soaked piece of cardboard, her bed for the last few nights.
“We’re suffering,” she says. “I’ve been on the street for a month. Before we were sleeping in the central park but immigration authorities started coming by and rounding up migrants.”
Migrants consider the area around the government’s refugee office one of the few safe places in Tapachula. Hundreds of people — most of them from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but also many from Cuba, the Congo, Cameroon, Haiti and other countries — wait there. Most of those outside the refugee office say they are fleeing danger back home and are filing asylum claims that would give them legal status in Mexico.
Last week, the U.S. and Mexican governments reached a deal to reduce Central American migration to the United States. Mexico agreed to strengthen its immigration enforcement and also let migrants wait for U.S. asylum on its side of the border, in exchange for avoiding tariffs threatened by Trump. The June 7 agreement gave Mexico 45 days to show results in stopping migrants from traveling north.
But Mexico’s refugee commission is already overwhelmed: There are only 48 staff members in the entire country and the commission expects to receive 60,000 asylum claims this year, a number that may rise with further U.S.-Mexico negotiations.
Mexico has already reported a 196% increase in asylum applications this year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. The U.N. agency recently announced it will fund new offices and staff for the Mexican refugee commission in addition to providing ongoing operational support.
“Forced displacement from Central America is straining asylum capacity across the region,” UNHCR said this week, calling for a coordinated regional approach to the issue.
During his first year in office, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador cut the national refugee commission’s budget this year to $1.2 million, the lowest allotment in seven years, as part of a series of government cutbacks.
The government gives no aid to desperate people like Palacios, says Salva Lacruz, the operations director for the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, a nonprofit in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.
“[Mexican] federal, state and municipal governments all completely lack humanitarian funds,” he says. “They completely ignore this responsibility and instead focus resources entirely on repression and enforcement.”
President López Obrador insists that migrants will be treated well.
“I refer you to the Bible, which talks about how to treat the outsider,” the president said in a press conference on Wednesday. “He who mistreats the foreigner, the migrant, especially when they do it out of necessity, is not acting with humanity.”
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute carries out daily roundups of migrants on the streets of Tapachula. Migrants who have been held in the institute’s Siglo XXI detention center in the city say they are poorly treated.
“It’s horrible in there,” says Jorge Medina, 21, sitting outside the detention center. “They punish people a lot inside, it’s really nasty and dirty where they keep us. And there’s a little solitary confinement room, they kept me there three days in total darkness.”
Medina is with his mother trying to get his 18-year-old brother José out of the detention center.
His mother María Eugenia Medina, 43, says she fled an abusive husband connected to the 18th Street gang in the capital of El Salvador. She was deported from the U.S. and Mexico back to El Salvador in the last two years. She and her five children are seeking asylum in Mexico, but José didn’t have his asylum paperwork on him when immigration agents stopped him at a checkpoint.
“I’ve been to the local human rights office, the refugee office, and the U.N. refugee agency, but no one has been able to help me get my son out,” she says.
From January to May, Mexico detained 74,031 migrants, up 36% compared with the same period in 2018, according to the National Migration Institute.
The institute denied NPR’s request for access to the detention facility and did not respond to questions or repeated interview requests.
Lacruz, from the local human rights group, is one of few people who is allowed inside this immigration detention center as part of humanitarian oversight.
“The conditions, the hygiene inside is all deplorable,” says Lacruz. “But what is invisible, what migrants probably don’t even perceive, is the total lack of due process. Migrants don’t have rights and they have no access to information or legal representation.”
He worries that Mexico is deporting asylum-seekers, putting them at risk in their home country because “assailants notice when you flee and are more aggressive when you return home.”
Lacruz monitors the 16 immigration detention facilities in southern Chiapas state, which includes Tapachula, and says, depending on daily fluctuations, they all go well over capacity. The Siglo XXI center has capacity for 900 detainees but often exceeds 1,400 and once documented more than 2,000 people held here, Lacruz says. At an 80-person detention center in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the total of those detained once exceeded 400.
And those were the conditions before Mexico’s promise last week to the U.S. to ramp up enforcement. Mexican authorities say they’ll deploy thousands of federal troops — most from a newly created National Guard — as well as a fleet of helicopters to stop the illegal border crossings on the river.
But at one checkpoint near Tapachula, a Mexican immigration agent who was not authorized to speak to journalists, told NPR that the immigration authorities are already stretched too thin.
“I have been traveling nonstop for the last seven months, working at both the northern and southern borders,” he says, in between sweeps of buses and vans heading north. “But I was hired to do an administrative job, a desk job, and they sent me out because we don’t have enough people.”
James Fredrick reported from Tapachula, Mexico.