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African, Haitian migrants stranded in Mexican border city build shantytown

TAPACHULA, Mexico, May 14 (UPI) — African and Haitian migrants stranded for two months in southern Mexico during an immigration crackdown begun by the United States are living in a roadside shantytown whose squalid conditions endanger health and hurt nearby small businesses, residents and local migrant aid organizations say.

“I’ve never seen it like this and I’ve lived here 30 years. My business is suffering,” said Narciso Lopez Flores, a convenience store owner. “Piles of trash are everywhere and people are defecating near to where they have to sleep. I’m worried about everybody’s health, my family’s and theirs.”

Mexico’s crackdown on undocumented migrants trying to reach the U.S.-Mexico border has gone into high gear. Rigorous immigration in southern Mexico is one of the government’s responses to President Donald Trump‘s threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border.

But enforcement has stranded thousands of desperate and frustrated migrants in towns and cities at least 950 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants without Mexican immigration documents cannot take buses or fly on planes from Tapachula as they cannot pass through numerous immigration checkpoints. Mexico detains and deports undocumented migrants it catches.

Immigration officials said they are only applying existing laws, albeit with new rigor.

“The truth is that these laws have always existed, but they were never applied,” said an immigration official in Mexico City speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are now applying the law. Every undocumented migrant risks deportation if they enter the country illegally and do not register with immigration officials.”

Mexico’s new approach means several hundred African and Haitian migrants are stranded, exhausted and increasingly sick after fleeing from Haiti or African countries.

Almost all migrants said they take planes to Ecuador since it does not require visas. Angolan migrants told terrifying stories of companions’ murders while being robbed when traveling through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. Penniless in Tapachula, these migrants live on the street while they wait for appointments with immigration officials.

“The local, state and federal governments have been totally incompetent when it comes to migrants’ basic health and sanitation needs,” said Karla Gonzalez, a member of a local migrant aid collective monitoring the situation on Mexico’s southern border.

“Authorities are not providing bathrooms and so migrants do their business in the open air. Migrants do not have water for food preparation or to wash their hands. We are seeing high rates of gastrointestinal infections,” Gonzalez said.

She said municipal officials have been “totally silent” about migrants’ basic needs since a large caravan arrived in November.

“The city council and mayor know what is going on. Hundreds of migrants are living in deplorable conditions in front of city hall,” Gonzalez said. “But they don’t do anything. They don’t even have a health and sanitation plan.”

The stench of rotting trash and human feces pervades the air of the shantytown. Migrants from Angola and Haiti expressed their frustration at being left to live on the street for two months.

Tapachula has been experiencing high temperatures and daily thunderstorms, making the situation in the street even more difficult for migrants. They have begun to wash themselves and their clothes in nearby streams. Washing in the city’s streams further marks their outsider status: locals residents know sewage contaminates the city’s rivers.

Migrants expressed surprise at being stopped by Mexico’s authorities in their journey to claim asylum at the U.S. border. They expressed fears about returning to their home countries because of violent politics and ruined economies.

“I want a better life for my children,” said LĂ­dia Maria Afonzo, a mother from Angola with four children accompanied by her mother-in-law. She said her husband was take by soldiers in Angola and that after the soldiers mutilated her teenage son, the family fled from Luanda, Angola’s capital, by bus to Namibia, where they took a flight to Ecuador.

“Look, look at what the soldiers did to him,” Afonzo said, pointing to a large scars on her teenage son’s neck and wrist. She said she wants to claim asylum in the United States and has contacts in Portland, Maine.

Surrounded by five members of her family, Afonzo said she hated relieving herself outside on the road. “We need clothes and things for hygiene. None of us drink any water during the day. It costs money and all of us are hungry. My son has had diarrhea for days.”

Haitian migrant Cineac Kinchel is traveling with Michele, his 8-month-old daughter. He and his wife fled Haiti’s capital one year ago because of a “political problem” and spent 10 months in Chile, where Michele was born and his wife is still hospitalized. The soft-voiced migrant said his daughter was sick, but that he could not afford the 300 pesos for a consultation at the hospital five minutes down the road.

“I really want to get to New York where I have friends who can take care of us,” Kinchel said. “I can’t go back to Haiti. The government will kill me.”

Like many of the migrants living in the shantytown, Kinchel said its conditions were worse than the journey to Mexico, even after surviving attacks in the jungle between Colombia and Panama.

“I was a teacher and translator,” Kinchel said. “I’ve never lived like this. When it rains we have to huddle together, trying to stay dry. This is no place for Michele.”

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