The armed, masked gang members showed up on a motorcycle at the home in northern Honduras last fall with a stark warning for the occupants: Leave town within 24 hours, or else.
Laura Maria Cruz Martinez, another single mother and the nine kids in their care hurriedly threw clothing and personal items into bags and made for the border before dawn, their home abandoned with the furniture and appliances left in place.
Nine months later they’re together again in two adjacent apartments in a working-class neighborhood of eastern Mexico City. It hasn’t always been easy adjusting to this megalopolis of 20 million-plus, with its crowded subway and unfamiliar, slang-heavy Spanish, but at least they’re safe from the gangs rampaging back home.
All eleven were recognized as refugees by Mexico in March and granted asylum, making them part of a growing wave of refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who are resettling here instead of trying to reach the United States, which many see as increasingly hostile.
The rise in refugee resettlement in Mexico has paralleled a decrease in immigration to the United States, with apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol down sharply at the frontier — especially of unaccompanied children and families like Cruz’s.
Under President Donald Trump, U.S. authorities have sought to ramp up immigration enforcement and decrease the number of refugees. Last week Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, warned that those who enter the U.S. illegally “should not be comfortable” and “should be concerned that someone is looking for you.”
“I do think there are fewer people deciding to focus their sights on the United States precisely because it has projected itself as being an unwelcoming country,” said Maureen Meyer, a senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights-focused organization.
After Mexico received 3,424 applications for refugee status in 2015, that rose to 8,794 the following year and applications are already outpacing that this year with 5,464 just from January to May.
Nearly all are people from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America, where street gangs are largely free to terrorize the population and murder rates are some of the world’s highest outside of open war zones. The Mexico office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees believes the country could receive 20,000 requests by year’s end.
“We’re talking about entire families, of entire generations ... who arrive at Mexico’s southern border,” said Francesca Fontanini, regional spokeswoman for the UNHCR. “Obviously, facing this avalanche of people the humanitarian response needs to increase.”
Belize, Costa Rica and Panama also saw a rise to more than 4,300 refugee applications last year from people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Cruz, 40, said the threat against her household came just three hours after they reported to police that gangsters had been harassing her 16-year-old niece in the Chamelecon suburb of San Pedro Sula, which is among the world’s five deadliest cities. The last straw came when a gang leader told the girl she was going to become his girlfriend whether she wanted to or not.
“We wanted to be far away because of the threat,” Cruz Martinez said. So on Oct. 7, with the help of money raised by their pastor, they boarded a 5 a.m. bus to Guatemala. Crossing Mexico and trying to enter the United States, chancing deportation all along the way, seemed unnecessarily risky.
“If they sent us back to our country it was certain death,” said Emma Karina Cruz Velasquez, the niece.
Instead, they turned themselves in to Mexican authorities at the El Ceibo border crossing.
Even as it has cracked down on illegal migration along its southern border, Mexico has come under pressure to welcome more refugees. Both the United Nations and Mexican officials attribute the increase in asylum applications to government and NGO efforts to make potential refugees aware of their rights.
Increasingly, word has made it back to Central America that it’s easier to resettle in Mexico.
“If you look at Mexico’s definition of who can qualify for asylum, it’s much broader than the United States,” Meyer said. “If you are fleeing widespread violence in your country, you may be able to qualify for asylum in Mexico, whereas in the U.S. you have to prove that you belong to very specific groups of people.”
Last year Mexico granted refugee status to one of every three applicants from the Northern Triangle, according to government data. Several hundred more were allowed to stay without being recognized as refugees.
In the United States, by contrast, people from those nations have among the highest asylum denial rates — about 80 percent — according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Cruz and her household spent a month in immigration detention in the southern state of Tabasco, where Mexican officials first told them about the possibility of applying for refugee status. They were then taken to a migrant shelter in Tenosique, and within a week they moved into an apartment with assistance from the U.N. refugee agency.
In all it took about five months for their case to be resolved. Mexican law calls for a decision within 45 working days, but there is a backlog. (U.S. authorities are currently holding asylum interviews for applications filed in 2013-14.)
In March they moved to Mexico City, again with UNHCR help, and Cruz found a job selling medical supplies near downtown. Among her biggest challenges has been getting used to the 75-minute commute to work by subway and by foot.
Back in Honduras, the families had lived on a hotly disputed boundary between two rival gang territories, and shootouts were frequent. Cruz quit her job cleaning houses and began selling tamales and horchata out of the home to be able to watch over the kids, who were prohibited from going outside alone. Cruz’s daughters and niece stopped attending school last June because the gang harassment had become so intense.
Now they share a neat, simply furnished two-bedroom apartment with a woman from El Salvador and her toddler daughter, who also received refugee status. The two oldest kids watch over the younger ones and make sure dinner’s ready when Cruz gets home from work. They’re getting ready to go back to school in August and planning for a bright future.
Emma, gregarious and quick to laugh, wants to study business administration and perhaps work in tourism. Cruz’s eldest daughter, a shy but earnest 14-year-old also named Laura, wants to be a dentist.
“What drives me is seeing my daughters grow up and seeing them in a different atmosphere,” Cruz said. “You can see the difference in them.”
Text from the AP news story, More families fleeing Central America resettling in Mexico, by Christopher Sherman.
Photos by Rebecca Blackwell